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Minnesota must step up for home health workers and those they care for

Courtesy of the author
The author with her caregiver, Steve.

Last month, the care crisis that is affecting thousands of families like mine across Minnesota was highlighted in a front-page Star Tribune article, but it doesn’t seem that the leaders of our state heard this critical message. When given the chance to plug the hole in funding that is causing seniors and people with disabilities like me to have our hours of care cut, Gov. Mark Dayton and House Republicans ignored the crisis and focused on other priorities.

What is especially upsetting is that House Republicans found the time and resources to insert a $32 million tax break to tobacco companies in the final tax bill, but left out a smaller amount needed to get our state in line with the federal overtime law for home care workers. (The governor vetoed the tax bill because of technical errors.)

What does this say about our priorities?

Not a theoretical problem

I have had four strokes and have lost the use of my right-side leg and arm, and my eyesight is impaired. My doctor has prescribed 24/7 care by a PCA as a live-in aide. As someone who relies on a home care worker to be able to live an independent life in my home, I know the caregiver shortage isn’t a theoretical problem. It is something that thousands of families like mine are facing every single day.

Maybe you don’t receive home care services now, but you or someone in your family almost certainly will at some point in your life. When it happens, you will see how important it is having someone you trust to help you live independently. Home care work is one of the fastest growing industries in the country, yet it continues to be invisible to those in power. 

The article mentioned above explained that many home health care agencies have responded to new federal rules — requiring overtime pay and pay for travel time between patients — by cutting hours that caregivers can work, capping them at 40 per week. When home care workers’ hours are cut, it compounds the problem of our current caregiver shortage. Like many care recipients, I am allotted over 40 hours per week of care by the state. With the new cap imposed by agencies, that means home care workers like Steve, who cares for me, can only be paid for 40 hours of work. The rest of the hours I need? There are only three options: I try to find someone I trust who will work for just 2 hours a day, or my worker chooses to work those hours without pay, or I go without the care I need.

In my case it means Steve has given hours of his time to me unpaid because he knows there is no better option. Caregivers like Steve have big hearts, so this situation of working for free is often what happens, and it is wrong. This work is important, and it shouldn’t be taken advantage of by those in power while they are giving money to corporate special interests like Big Tobacco.

Historically underpaid and undervalued

The home care field has historically been underpaid and undervalued. The reason that workers are just now becoming eligible for overtime pay is because care workers were left out of New Deal rules by politicians who explicitly did not value work being done predominantly by women and people of color. It is great that President Barack Obama fixed this injustice last year, but leaders in Minnesota need to do their part to make sure this step forward doesn’t become a step backward for Minnesota families.

When the Legislature didn’t hear our voices last month, we decided to visit someone whose voice they did seem to hear: a tobacco lobbyist. We visited the home of a leader of NATO (National Association of Tobacco Outlets) with a group of home care workers and clients, and when he wasn’t home we left him a note asking for him to use his power at the Capitol to help care workers and clients in addressing the caregiver crisis.

A video of our visit has been seen by over 13,000 people in just a few days, underscoring the outrage that most Minnesotans feel when they hear that seniors and people with disabilities, and the people who care for them, have to go to such lengths for what should be a common-sense solution.

Why is care work continuing to be ignored by those in power? Why do the rich and special interests have a larger voice than regular Minnesotans at the Capitol? These are questions we will be asking the elected officials whose inaction is causing suffering for countless Minnesota families.

A moral choice

Staying in my home is what I want, and it saves the state money. I couldn’t stay in my home without Steve. Home care workers like Steve across the state deserve dignity and respect for the important work that they do. While many elected officials have ignored this crisis, those of us who are living it are not so lucky.

In what world is a gigantic tax break for the tobacco industry more important than providing funding for seniors and people with disabilities to be able to stay in our homes, not institutions? I don’t want to believe that some of our elected officials actually think this. Maybe they didn’t consider it as a simple, moral choice in the way I’m talking about it. Steve and I sure hope they do so now.

Sandra Borgstahl lives in Eagan.

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If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

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