On its surface, last Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Harris v. Quinn was about unions. But it’s actually about all of us, and the future we want for our country, particularly in light of the baby boom generation reaching retirement age.
Every day, 10,000 Americans turn 65 — that’s one person every eight seconds. By the time you finish reading this piece, a dozen more people will have turned 65. The baby boom generation is catalyzing an unprecedented “elder boom” in America. Nine out of 10 would prefer to age at home and in their communities instead of nursing homes, a profound shift that relies upon the work of paid caregivers. As more and more elders and families seek the support they need, home care work has become the fastest growing occupation in the nation.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in Harris v. Quinn made it more difficult for home care workers to pool their resources and have a strong voice at work. The vast majority of home care workers are women with families of their own — children and aging loved ones. Because the work that happens inside our homes has long been undervalued, and because this workforce has been excluded from basic protections for decades, home care workers are forced to live and work in poverty.
The physically strenuous and emotionally complex work of caregivers deserves to be fairly compensated. In the 1980s a group of African-American women home care workers in Chicago, many of whom migrated from the Southern states of Mississippi and Georgia, decided to voluntarily contribute $5 per month in order to build an organization that would improve their situation. The resulting union enabled them to raise their wages from $1 per hour to $12 per hour, going up to $13 in December, with health insurance and paid training. It’s not everything they deserve, but it is progress.
The home care workforce is a canary in a coal mine when we consider the future of work in America. Most new jobs are low-wage service jobs. New workers are more likely to look like caregivers, largely women of color. After putting in a hard day of work every day, will these workers be able to support their families and create a pathway to real opportunity for their children and children’s children? Can we create a democracy that truly rewards everyone’s hard work?
The elder boom brings this question to the fore with new urgency. The strength and sustainability of our care workforce will define the quality of our care infrastructure and our ability to support the quality of life that our aging loved ones want, which in turn will define the quality of life for our adult workforce as a whole. And it will mark the extent to which we have made real progress on very real questions of racial and gender equity in our economy that we have struggled with for generations.
All of us will need to grapple with these questions and take action to create the progress we know we need. While the Harris v. Quinn decision takes our nation in the wrong direction, we can turn the tide. Municipalities and states are stepping up to meet the challenges of an expanding aging population. We must support them in acknowledging the true value of care work and in enabling elders and their families to find trained, qualified caregivers. By valuing caregivers, we value the dignity of people with disabilities and elders who need caregiving assistance to live full lives.
The Supreme Court’s ruling should serve as a call to action to all of us to create real choices reflecting what most of us actually want. Given our 21st century caregiving challenge, we need to meet the needs of our growing elder population and to lift up the workforce we know will be a critical part of the solution.
Ai-jen Poo is co-director of Caring Across Generations and Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Mary Kay Henry is international president of the Service Employees International Union.
©2014 Ai-jen Poo and Mary Kay Henry