Opinion Columns & Blogs

Home care workers deserve chance to retire, too

What would you do if you were told tomorrow that you could never afford to retire? This is the very real challenge faced by tens of thousands of home care workers in our state.

Washington’s home care program serves nearly 60,000 of our most vulnerable citizens – including seniors and people with disabilities – through a mix of individual home care workers and private home care agencies. Home care saves the state millions of dollars each year by keeping individuals out of more expensive institutional settings such as nursing homes and residential habilitation centers.

Clearly, home care workers provide a service that’s vital to our state and to the people they care for. Unfortunately, they do so while earning less than a living wage that doesn’t allow them to save for retirement.

While the demand for home care is expected to grow by more than 55 percent over the next two decades as our population ages, challenges in worker turnover and recruitment will likely make it hard for baby boomers to find quality care.

A recent survey of former caregivers found that almost 20 percent cited a lack of retirement benefits as a major reason for leaving their jobs. And if we cannot retain home care workers, more people will be forced into Medicaid- and Medicare-subsidized nursing homes to meet their care needs.

Last year an agreement was reached that funded a modest retirement contribution for these workers, many of whom are rapidly approaching retirement age. But this retirement benefit is in danger of being left out of the budget currently being negotiated in the Legislature. Without it, Washington’s home care workers face the bleak reality of insufficient social security benefits to support them during their golden years.

Let’s be clear: We’re not talking about adding home care workers into the state’s defined benefit pension system. We’re talking about a modest, 23-cents-per-hour contribution to a trust-fund that would provide a modest benefit to caregivers who spend their lives assisting our most vulnerable.

This modest benefit would provide a needed supplement to Social Security – which, unfortunately, provides a very low retirement benefit to low-wage workers.

Home care workers are legally defined as private sector employees. And in the private sector, negotiating for pensions is a mandatory component of collective bargaining. Therefore, Gov. Jay Inslee was entirely correct, both legally and morally, to negotiate a retirement benefit for home care workers.

Last year’s negotiated retirement benefit was a historic agreement that avoided arbitration for the first time in a decade. It keeps faith with the collective bargaining process that Washingtonians approved by an overwhelming popular vote in 2001 in Initiative 775.

The Legislature must honor this agreement. In doing so, we strengthen home care by keeping experienced workers on the job and we give caregivers who work tirelessly for the benefit of others hope that they won’t have to live their senior years in poverty and debt.

State Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, represents the 29th Legislative District in Olympia.