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Working In These Times

Saturday, Dec 15, 2012, 6:00 am

Fighting Fiscal-Cliff Cuts, Home Care Workers and Employers Forge Alliance

BY Kari Lydersen

Caregiver Lisa Thomas contributed an adult diaper to a new exhibit at Hull House Museum in Chicago, representing the challenges of her job and an ongoing campaign for domestic workers' rights. (Photo by Kari Lydersen.)  

CHICAGO—Caring around the clock for elderly clients who suffer from dementia and serious physical problems is a grueling struggle for Lisa Thomas, a Chicago caregiver. Thomas works much more than 40 hours a week, but does not earn the state minimum wage and receives no insurance coverage or benefits.

Taxing as the situation is, Thomas said she “loves” her clients and strives to do her best for them—even when the adult son of one woman called her “the N-word.” 

Thomas is one of the local leaders of the Chicago Coalition of Household Workers, a project of the Latino Union, who are now joining a national campaign called Caring Across Generations, that brings together homecare workers and their clients in a mutual fight to protect both groups’ rights and well-being. The alliance advocates for the crucial federal programs—Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security—that make home care possible for many people and create jobs for caregivers such as Thomas.

On Dec. 1, the Chicago Coalition of Household Workers held a Caring Across Generations congress, where caregivers and care recipients shared their stories and concerns. Their mission is especially urgent as the federal budget negotiations continue to threaten serious cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

The Chicago coalition’s multi-faceted campaign rollout also included the Dec. 10 opening of the exhibit Unfinished Business: 21st Century Home Economics at the Jane Addams-Hull House Museum. The museum celebrates the legacy of Jane Addams and other late 19th-early 20th century reformers who among other things advocated for rights of often unpaid domestic workers—including housewives—who kept their families and society itself going in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. The new exhibit connects the dots between the struggles of domestic workers in decades past and the travails of current domestic workers.

Modern domestic workers, including Thomas, created their own exhibits with artifacts that represent their work.  “They don’t see what we do as work,” Thomas told Working In These Times at the museum opening, standing in front of one of her contributions: a bulky blue adult diaper.

In text accompanying the diaper, Thomas describes her typical day. It takes two hours to dress and bathe her client, an elderly woman who fights her every step of the way. Then “she’ll have an accident in her pants, she’ll take everything off—slap me with the Depends,” Thomas wrote.

Thomas also exhibits a sponge, representing the challenges of bathing one of her former clients, a now-deceased 450-pound woman. Though the woman would thank her profusely while she worked, the effort left Thomas with an chronic backache and no health insurance to treat it. Domestic workers typically work for different clients through agencies or are paid directly by a family, meaning that—even if they work much more than 40 hours a week—they usually are not considered full-time and do not get health insurance, paid vacation or sick days. Thomas said she typically earns $565 for spending three straight days with a client with advanced dementia, which works out to an hourly rate of about $7.

Thomas noted that some family members are considerate and appreciative—she cried with them at the funeral of woman she used to bathe—while others are cruel and exploitative. “You treat us like dogs, but expect us to be loving and caring for your family members,” she told Working In These Times. Her paid hours for the woman with dementia start at 6 a.m. Friday, but, she said, “I have to get there at 4 a.m. or she will be out in the street walking around in her underclothes.” Mondays through Wednesdays during the day she cares for another client, and she also works weekday evenings. She has no day off.

Myrla Baldonado contributed her spiral-bound “freedom notebook” to the Hull House exhibit. The  “cheap notebook which I bought one day when I went to buy groceries with the husband” helps her survive emotionally by giving her an outlet for her frustration, sadness and anger. In the accompanying text, she explains the difficulty of caring for an elderly couple suffering bed sores and dementia.

“I had to bear the awful smell, the cries of pain, lifting, cleaning her up fast and the quarrels between the husband and wife while I was in the act of dressing her wounds. Later on, I also had to figure out how I would not get depressed in the poorly-lighted house, how to protect myself from the husband’s  advances during the night and how to still demonstrate my care for both of them.”

In the notebook she talks about feeling belittled at the grocery store by someone who doesn’t return her smile, “probably thinking I’m just a caregiver.”

“But why do I have to be defensive?” she asks herself. “It’s a decent way to earn money.”

Chicago domestic workers affiliated with the Latino Union and other grassroots groups also participated in the recent ground-breaking 14-city survey of 2,000 domestic workers, “Home Economics,” released in late November (read Working In These Times coverage here). Thomas and other domestic workers in Chicago carried out the surveys, and Thomas said that as hard as her life is, she interviewed women who face even more challenges, including many workers whose undocumented status makes it even harder for them to advocate for their rights.

Unlike most workers, domestic employees often cannot go home at the end of the day; cannot eat meals at regular hours; cannot even sleep more than a few hours at a time for days at a stretch. They serve clients in their most vulnerable stages of life, and they often say they love the work and the people they serve. But they also want to be treated with respect, afforded decent working conditions and paid a decent wage—they are exempt from federal minimum wage laws, and regularly earn less than minimum wage.

“I talked to ladies about living in homes where they can’t eat until the whole family is asleep, so they just get the scraps,” Thomas told Working In These Times. “About being abused by the husbands. About not being paid. Slavery is still going on today.”

The workers hope that by forging alliances with their clients and employers through efforts such as Caring Across Generations, they can improve public understanding of how difficult and important homecare work is, ideally as a first step toward improved working conditions and compensation.

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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