Labor Secretary says investment in home care workers needed to avert crisis

By: - June 24, 2021 5:58 am
Marty Walsh doesn't want to leave Las Vegas

Crystal Lockett, a home care worker, meets with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh during an event at SEIU Southern Nevada offices. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

A proposed $400-billion investment in the nation’s home caregiving infrastructure is needed to prevent a massive crisis in the industry, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in Las Vegas Wednesday.

The amount is included in the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan, the infrastructure legislation that has been going through intense negotiations in Washington. Counterproposals from Republicans have excluded funding for home care workers, and there is no guarantee the caregiving provisions will be included in the final package.  

While Walsh stressed the importance of investing in the nation’s largest-growing job sector, he wouldn’t say if Biden would accept a bill that doesn’t include funding for home care workers. 

“I can’t speak what the final version will be, but (Biden) is certainly committed to it or else he wouldn’t put it in the bill in the first place,” Walsh said in an interview Wednesday. “I’ve been going around the country and every single place I go people talk about this as an important component in the final package.”

The caregiver provisions of the administration’s infrastructure plan would expand access to long-term care services under Medicaid, which covers the costs of a significant portion of caregiving services in the nation. Caregivers would see increased wages and benefits, and be empowered to collectively bargain.

The U.S. Department of Labor data projects the home care profession to grow more than any other occupation, estimating it to expand by more than a third by 2028. 

But low wages, few worker protections and irregular or infrequent hours prevent many from staying in the industry, said Crystal Lockett, a home care worker.

In 2008, home care workers made an average of $12.54 an hour. It dropped to $11.07 a decade later, according to the Labor Department. The national average was $12.12 in 2018.

“Nevada has one of the fastest growing senior populations in the nation, but at the same time one in two (personal care assistants) are leaving the job in the first year creating a severe workforce shortage crisis,” Lockett told Walsh, who met with workers at the Service Employees International Union’s Southern Nevada offices. 

Lockett said she earned $15 an hour as a caregiver in Illinois. In Nevada, where she moved three years ago, she is making $10.50 an hour. 

“I was shocked to move out here to learn they were only paying as little as $9,” she said. “I talked to a woman who has been in the industry for 20 years and still only makes $9 an hour. It’s crazy.”

In addition to providing home care, Lockett works as a caterer to earn additional income, a scheduling burden that is becoming increasingly unsustainable for her. 

Walsh, who has been traveling the country to promote the infrastructure package, spoke to home care workers at SEIU during a multiple-day trip to Southern Nevada to tout the American Jobs Plan. 

The plan would create “over 1 million new home care jobs and makes sure those jobs have a good, living wage,” he said. 

“We’re going to need a place to ensure our loved ones are taken care of,” he told the group. “If we don’t focus on this, not only are the people working in this industry not going to be paid a good wage, we’re not going to have people to work in this industry. It’s going to become a crisis.”

One of the debates around the American Jobs Plan is the question: What is infrastructure?

Republicans opposed to the originally proposed version of the bill argue infrastructure should only include investments in more traditional items such as roads and bridges. 

The Biden administration, as well as Democrats supporting the legislation, have countered other items like the home care industry — as well as things like affordable child care, college access, paid leave, all featured in the legislation the American Families Plan — should also be considered infrastructure.

“If we don’t have the infrastructure around the country to take care of our older adults as they get older and frail, we are setting ourselves up for some serious trouble,” Walsh said.

Walsh said he has been meeting with members of Congress to gauge interest in including investment toward home care workers. 

“Every single person I talk with says it’s important — Democrats and Republicans alike,” he said. “We need to keep the politics out of this conversation and keep it on the intentions of the bill. The bill is not about Democrats or Republicans, it’s about the American people. It’s about people having the training ability and making sure the people who take care of our loved ones are treated fairly, paid fairly and respected. It’s about making sure the industry itself is invested in. Everyone likes it.”

When asked if acknowledgement of need will translate into Republicans voting for the bill, Walsh said “I hope it does.”

It’s not just Republicans who have voiced reservations about the administration’s expansive approach to infrastructure. West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, a needed vote as the Senate is split 50-50, has said he was “uncomfortable” with aspects of the bill. 

“I haven’t had a conversation with the senator directly on this,” Walsh said. “I’m talking with him sometime next week.”

While its fate is still being determined, Lockett is excited by the prospect of a $400 billion investment in home care workers. 

“So much could be done with this,” she said. “This could go a long way to get us better wages and possibly get health care, which we don’t get. We don’t get paid time off or sick days. I’m hoping this bill is going to include all of that and give us the health care, the days off, the paid leave, whatever it is we need to be the best we can be, which will help us be a better (personal care aides) for our client.”

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.

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