With our elected officials finally having wrapped up their budget debate after a long and difficult legislative session, one area where they really should be proud of their work is the new investments in home- and community-based services that are going to help countless Minnesotans.
The work done by home care workers – mostly women and people of color – helps keep tens of thousands of Minnesota seniors and people with disabilities safely and happily in their homes. Yet throughout history it has been undervalued and underpaid. We didn’t solve all the issues with the union contract between over 25,000 SEIU Healthcare Minnesota home care workers and the administration of Gov. Tim Walz, but we took some big steps forward. President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan (ARP) made a set of important further investments and policy advances possible, on top of all the improvements in our union contract. The list of those added gains thanks to ARP is too long to include here, but they include an additional wage increase we’ll be negotiating with the state, on top of the raise to $14.40 set for October of this year through the union contract.
Funding and ratification for the contract – negotiated by a bargaining team made up of care workers like me and the clients we care for across the table from state officials – was part of the final Health and Human Services budget deal passed on a bipartisan basis by the Minnesota Legislature. It raises the pay floor for people like me from $13.25 to $15.25 by 2022. It also improves paid time off, boosts paid holidays (not pay for taking holidays off, like most other workers can expect, but extra pay when we work on holidays, so that our clients can have our support on Christmas or Eid or the 4th of July) and increases training for care workers.
This contract and the other changes made possible by the ARP will be a huge improvement for people across the state, but it is especially critical for those of us in Greater Minnesota. I live on the Iron Range, and I can tell you from direct experience that while there is a care shortage all across the state, it is far more acute in small towns, where there are fewer people able and willing to do this work. When people do try out home care work and see how challenging it is and the meager return, many leave the field almost as soon as they’ve entered, for higher wages and less responsibility doing something else.
That is why I’m so excited about the work I’ve been able to do, together with fellow union members, to win these improvements and to rally legislators across party lines to support our work. During a legislative session where it seemed the two parties couldn’t agree on much, we are proud of the support home care work has received from both DFL and GOP lawmakers.
With the boost in pay, care workers like me will struggle a little less caring for ourselves and our families. Women like me who do this work will have a little extra money to get things for our kids like new school clothes, registration for sports and being able to have time to see their activities. As a home care worker I have missed so many recitals and sports events because I needed to work long hours to make ends meet.
For most of us, it is a matter of “when” not “if” either ourselves or a loved one will need personal care services. The gains in our union contract and the other improvements just approved by state lawmakers will help make sure people across this state have quality home care services when that time comes. We still have much work to do, but we’ve taken some big steps forward.
I truly believe we home care workers are making history. We are taking an industry that was always important but in the shadows, and we are finally making it so that the work is seen, recognized and valued. I am so proud of the work that went into making this happen, and hope that by the time I need care myself this is a job people want to go into because they can help people and make a decent living. Thanks to the efforts of countless workers and clients through our union, Walz, and state legislators, we are starting to move in that direction.
Dawn Burnfin is a home care worker from Chisholm and a member of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota.
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