In honor of Labor Day, I'd like to reflect and share about an issue that's lit a fire in my soul: healthcare aide rights. This is more a humble sharing of my own reflections than a political essay; I've decided to write of my own experience & opinion more than anything else in this post. Thank you for taking the time to read, and I appreciate hearing your reflections as well.
As a professional caregiver for about 8 years now, I've worked in various care settings--ranging from those that explicitly identify as justice organizations, to those that explicitly directed us workers to close the door on the union organizers they knew were making their way through the county.
I've been extremely fortunate in receiving fair pay and benefits for the bulk of my caregiving work, as a nurse's aide in the hospice field. That's been at a justice organization, and part of its commitment to justice is treating its employees with respect. I am very grateful, and over the years I've come to realize how very rare this is.
When I witness the extreme disenfranchisement of Certified Nursing Assistant (CNAs) and Home Health Aides (HHAs) in the United States, it hurts and infuriates me. The fight for caregiver rights has foundations in various justice movements, combining racial justice, gender justice, immigrant justice, disability justice, labor & economic justice, and elder justice. CNAs, HHAs, and their sick, elderly, and/or disabled clients all suffer from the same systematic violence, as marginalized populations. Rather than being at odds with each other, I believe that fighting for the rights and safety of clients and care workers is a singular political fight that will benefit "both sides." I use "both sides" tongue-in-cheek: the two-sided language I'm employing here is indicative of a common capitalist political strategy intended to pit us against each other, and it's used by those who have an interest in keeping aides/assistants and Sick & Disabled folks down. I find it ironic when administrators & political leaders in the care field discuss "quality of care" and better yet, "compassionate care," without attention to whether direct care workers have basic rights or not. Justice and compassion are holistic political issues, whether it's for the "caring" or the "cared-for"--we are all, indeed, both.
I'd like to share a few personal stories, now. My intent is to elucidate through storytelling some of the unjust practices in the care field that, as those of us inside of it know, are quite typical.
My first story:
I worked as a nursing assistant at a group home for individuals with dual physical and intellectual disabilities in Massachusetts while I was in college. As I alluded to above, my boss there pulled us all together and slyly directed us not to talk to the union organizers that she knew would be approaching us soon.
So, the labor and right-to-organize issue is obvious. What else? "A group home"--already we're treading on vital territory concerning disability rights and community integration. And: "while I was in college"--remember when I mentioned how fortunate I am to receive fair wages and benefits for the bulk of my caregiving work? That "good fortune" is a direct product of privilege to which I have access--privilege that most direct care workers do not have access to. I first started working at that justice organization through a college internship. My college education (and ability to do an internship) is directly related to my racial & socioeconomic privilege. This privilege led me to a needle-in-a-haystack job with fair pay and respect in the midst of a field of utter worker abuse. Most CNAs and HHAs don't have the kind of easy access to education that I had--nor the access to the white privilege and class privilege I have. My intention here is to highlight the insidious roles of racism and classism (and sexism) in what may conveniently seem like a "personal issue"--where I work and how much I get paid for it.
Another personal story:
At another caregiving job I had several years back, almost all of the direct care workers were black. (I'm white, and was one of a few white workers.) The administration was all white. I was explicitly asked by one of the white administrators to spy on my direct supervisor (a black, female caregiver) and report back to them behind her back--to call them without my supervisor's knowledge when she came in late to work, for example. I was nineteen and insecure, but I'm thankful I had the sense of solidarity to say no. I wish I had done more. For me, this experience was a significant one in a series of racist acts I witnessed that helped me realize I urgently needed to educate myself, and led me to majoring in Afro-American Studies in college.
One of my dear friends, a black woman CNA in her late sixties, works for a nursing agency in DC. They sent out a letter to all their employees "requesting" that they sign off their rights to collective bargaining. Perhaps their motivation had something to do with the fact that they owed their workers from their consistent and shameless practice of wage-theft? Furthermore, the CNAs and HHAs there are denied benefits such as sick days or vacation (which is very common), and are intentionally scheduled just under what's considered full-time, to ensure access to the fewest rights possible. When my friend refused to sign the "optional" contract, they actively intimidated her as a result, including withholding work assignments.
Sadly, these kinds of things are very, very normal.
This Labor Day, I want to hold CNAs, HHAs, and their clients in the light of honor, truth, and dignity. Just like death, participating in "care exchange" is an unavoidable (and not negative!) fact of life. So just like I encourage all my loved ones and clients to think about death, I encourage thinking about care, too. Including the politics of care. (Coming soon, I'll share a post I'm working on about racism in the end of life world.)
Thanks so much for reading.
(When I started, I intended this to be a curt, easily digestible post.) Alas. Guess that's the fire in my soul.
[ART BELOW: the amazing activist art of Marisa Morán Jahn--the photos of the art are my own. The moment I saw Jahn's art in a Brooklyn museum a couple years back, I felt a jolt of truth in my gut. After years of work in direct care, it personally moved me to see Jahn's artivism.]