Healthcare workers in Massachusetts got good news twice this past week. First, the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act and its insurance exchange rules—a system expected to add some 360,000 Massachusetts residents to the healthcare rolls. On Friday, about 35,000 workers who are providing disability and senior care through state programs got a major pay raise. Their new wage of $15 an hour puts Massachusetts personal-care assistants at the helm of the low-wage workers’ movement known as the Fight for 15.
George Gresham, president of the home care workers’ union, 1199 SEIU, said in the announcement of the deal, ‘“It is a moral imperative that all home care and healthcare workers receive $15 per hour, and Massachusetts is now a leader in this effort.”
The wage agreement was brokered over several months of talks between the union and Governor Charlie Baker’s administration, for a contract covering one of the country’s largest unionized home care workforces. The raise in the hourly base pay, set to increase from the current $13.38 to $15 by 2018, will cover a majority of the state’s home care workforce, who provide an array of household services, such as daily social support and medical assistance, to seniors and people with disabilities, and now heads for a union ratification vote.
According to a 2010 survey of Massachusetts home care workers, most are low-income women, many of them immigrants. Some entered the job caring for family members and others serve as attendants to people in their communities, as part of a broader effort to reorient senior and disability services away from institutions and toward local communities.
Their wage hike marks another notch of victory for the Fight for $15 movement, which in recent months has galvanized protests nationwide and helped push through local $15 minimum wage initiatives in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In addition to various city-level proposals, a $15 wage campaign is also underway in New York to raise compensation for the fast-food industry through a special wage board convened by the governor.
For home care workers, the victory is especially sweet; it’s only in the past generation that the sector has transformed itself through a combination of state support and vital grassroots organizing. Yet nationally, home health aides remain exempt from even the federal minimum wage, reflecting major regulatory gaps produced by an historic bias against forms of labor performed by women and people of color, particularly marginalized women domestic workers. But state-level union campaigns in California, Illinois, and Massachusetts—along with a recent unionization vote in Minnesota, have led to massive unionization efforts, fostered in part by home care provider partnerships under state health plans. Unionization efforts continue to expand despite the Supreme Court’s ruling last year in Harris v. Quinn, which undermined the mandatory-fee mechanism that unions often rely on for organizational financing. Today, SEIU represents about 600,000 of the 2.1 million home care workers nationwide.