Op-ed: We are facing a home health aide crisis

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My abuela has lived in Kingsbridge for more than 40 years. When she first came to the United States, she worked in garment factories, wrangling enormous spools of thread that would be spun into fabrics for clothing, and lived in a crowded Riverside Drive apartment. When one of her roommates told her she could earn more money as a home health aide, she jumped at the opportunity. Caring for others was a natural for her, so this seemed like a fateful turn of events for a young immigrant woman looking to build a better life for herself and her family.

My grandma was deeply invested in her work, and I saw her passion and dedication firsthand. On days my mom couldn’t secure child care, we would climb up the steep hill towards Van Cortlandt Village to care for Doña Sofia and countless others. My grandma would offer compassion, companionship and care — preparing meals and baths, buying groceries at C-Town, and doing countless intangible things that don’t fall into what our broken health care system defines as “billable” care. These tasks are both incredibly hard work and also measures of love.

As Ai-Jen Poo wrote in “The Age of Dignity, “Care is perhaps the most powerful expression of our human interdependence. In the context of caring relationships, we are never simply giving or receiving; it’s always both.”

A recent report found that more than 40% of New York’s home care workers live in or close to poverty levels, despite working incredibly hard, important jobs. After earning low wages for the majority of her career, my grandma now relies on a patchwork of Medicaid, social security, and whatever our family is able to contribute to make sure she can enjoy her golden years with her grandkids and great grandchild.

Her story is all too common. But because of the pandemic, hard jobs have become too hard and health care workers across the board are overwhelmed, underpaid, and in need of both financial and mental health support.

The current system is failing. It is shameful that after devoting their lives to caring for others with compassion and dignity, we fail to provide care workers and their loved ones with the same dignity and support they gave countless others.

My vision of care for the northwest Bronx includes better wages for caregivers, so they can take care of their loved ones and themselves, an end to 24-hour shifts, and hazard pay for serving on the frontlines of the continuing pandemic. Imagine what would be possible if women like my grandma were able to earn dignified wages throughout their careers. We could retain the people doing this critical work and attract more people to work in these professions, reducing the wait time for help.

To do that, our lawmakers need to take two critical steps at the state and national levels. Here in New York, our legislators must pass the Fair Pay for Home Care Act to increase the minimum wage by 150%. And nationally, Democrats need to get the Build Back Better bill done and ensure that New York state gets its fair share of tens of millions of dollars to tackle the home health care crisis.

In our corner of the northwest Bronx, so many of our loved ones rely on a vital network of care providers who make sure they can get to their appointments with ease, that their providers speak the language that our loved ones speak, and so much more. Those caregivers provide an invaluable service that allows disabled and older residents to stay in their neighborhoods, close to family and friends who know and love them.

When we advance social policies and programs that improve the lives of our caregivers, we ensure that everyone who relies on this system does better. Caregivers need to earn more. This caregiving crisis won’t get better until we muster the political courage needed to deliver better wages and support they have more than earned.

Jessica Altagracia Woolford is a candidate running in the Democratic primary for the 81st New York State Assembly District. 

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