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Home care workers rally for more pay, say it's the only way to ease chronic shortage

Two people in red shirts and masks hold a long white piece of paper that stretches down a hallway, held by other people standing behind them.
Karen Dewitt
New York State Public Radio
Home health care workers and their supporters unfurl a 100-foot-long banner listing names of New Yorkers on waiting lists for care. They marched Wednesday, March 29, 2023, at the State Capitol to ask for better pay in this year's state budget.

Home health care workers and their clients are among several groups that have come to the State Capitol in the days leading up to the state budget deadline. They’re demanding that any agreement that raises the minimum wage must include them.

Home care workers and their allies unfurled a 100-foot-long banner that they said lists names of people across New York who are on waiting lists for care.

“Governor Hochul, do you care?” they chanted.

The advocates say New York faces the worst home health care worker shortage in the nation. Women make up 91% of that workforce; 77% are people of color. Some are so poorly paid that they rely on public assistance programs to get by.

Several dozen protesters marched to the state health department’s offices to send a message to Gov. Kathy Hochul and her administration to change her minimum wage proposal, which they said is unfair to home health care workers.

Last year, Hochul and the Legislature agreed to set the minimum wage for home health care workers to $3 above the minimum wage, which is $15 in New York City and $14.20 an hour in most other parts of the state. The workers would then make up to $18 an hour. Advocates hailed the move as a step forward.

This year, Hochul wants to link increases to the minimum wage with the annual rate of inflation, but she does not want to include home care workers’ wages in that plan until the minimum wage reaches $18 for everyone.

Advocates — including Ilana Berger, co-executive director of the New York Caring Majority — said the governor’s proposal would essentially return home care workers back to the minimum wage, something that Hochul said last year she didn’t want to do.

“It absolutely is a contradiction. She said home care is not a minimum-wage job,” Berger said. “And then this budget is saying home care should be a minimum-wage job and will in fact, return to a minimum-wage job.”

Berger said caring for someone with a disability or an elderly person in their home is not an entry-level occupation.

“Home care is very skilled health care work. It has bathing and toileting, meal prep, tube feeding, wound care and medication management,” Berger said. “Anybody who's had a home care worker knows this.”

Berger and other advocates back a measure that would increase home health care workers’ pay to 150% of the state’s minimum wage.

Sen. Rachel May is the bill’s sponsor in the state Senate. She spoke at another home health care workers rally earlier in March, where she said it’s the only way to ease the worker shortage.

“That’s what all the research shows, that that’s what it takes to get enough people to do the work,” May said. “And to keep them off of public assistance.”

May’s bill was not part of the state Senate’s budget proposal. Democrats who lead the Senate and the state Assembly do want to increase pay for home health care workers, though.

The Assembly’s budget calls for indexing the minimum wage to inflation, as Hochul has proposed, but says the wage rate for home health care workers must remain at least $3 above the minimum wage, so that the workers don’t get shortchanged.

The budget is due April 1.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment and interviews newsmakers. Karen previously worked for WINS Radio, New York, and has written for numerous publications, including Adirondack Life and the Albany newsweekly Metroland.