First Person Blog

Voices, video, and photos from Oxfam's fight against poverty

Vital work, paltry wages: women’s work in America

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Patricia, a home care aide in Chicago, earns $10.55 an hour at her essential and demanding job. She’s one of millions of women doing “low-wage women’s work” jobs in the US today.

Women stuck in low-wage jobs struggle to make ends meet

Patricia is a home care aide in Chicago. She shared her story with Oxfam as part of our research on gender segregation in the US workforce. The resulting report, Undervalued and underpaid, explores challenges facing women who are stuck in “low-wage women’s work” jobs, such as cooking, cleaning, caring for children and the elderly.

As a home care aide, I get to perform tasks for people that they can no longer do for themselves. I cook, clean house, do laundry, and go shopping.

It’s very emotionally satisfying to care for people —I’m helping them stay in their homes instead of moving into a nursing home. In Illinois, home care aides save taxpayers over $600 million every year. Once my clients move into nursing homes, it becomes much more expensive for everyone.

I had one client who was developmentally challenged. When family members moved the individual into the apartment, the belongings had been dumped into about a dozen plastic tubs where they sat until I came along four years later. It was a tough situation, but the individual really wanted to live alone in the apartment and not an assisted living apartment or a group home. I cleaned and sanitized the apartment, then coached the individual in sorting through all the papers that the apartment management demanded be removed. We established a few simple rules. Verbal prompts and discussions reminded my client about the reasons for the rules, helped to develop better habits and a cleaner apartment.  My client was able to stay in the apartment. It was very satisfying.

Most of the clients at my agency are elderly; the assignments come from the Department on Aging. My mother is my first client each day. Then around 9, I call the office to see if I can do a fill-in for a home care aide who can’t work that day. Because I finish my mother by 10, I can often get a second morning client. It’s very tiring; I used to work full time hours with regular clients, but I really can’t anymore. Doing fill-ins gives me the flexibility to not work when I’m not feeling well. My job doesn’t offer sick days.

I do a lot of chores, and I remind people to take their medications. I can unscrew the cap for them (which they’re often unable to do), but I can’t give them the medication. Home care aides don’t do medical tasks.

This is a tough job that takes an emotional toll. Several of my clients have gone to hospitals and nursing homes and died. One didn’t answer my knock and when the building engineer opened the door, we found her on the floor dead. Sometimes home care aides are verbally abused by clients, family members, and supervisors.

I make $10.55 an hour. I make this much because it’s a union job and because the Chicago minimum wage went up to $10.50 this year. I get a contract raise of 10 cents an hour every year. However, it’s hardly enough. To sustain a family in Chicago, they say you need to make $22 an hour.

Mayra Dittman (R) helps Juanita Gilbert walk to the restroom at an Adult Day Health Care Center in Novato, California. The mean hourly wage of personal care aides is slightly over $10; the occupation is 85 percent female, and is projected to be one of the fastest growing occupations in the next ten years. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Home care aides deserve higher pay; that’s why we’re fighting for $15 an hour. I often worry about not having enough money to pay all my bills. I live on a bare bones budget – I rarely eat out and I can’t afford to go to the movies.

My employer doesn’t give us paid sick time, although my union has negotiated holiday and vacation pay based on the number of hours we work. But since I work fewer hours now, it will be a long time before I get any vacation – if ever. I might always have to work, I can’t see a day when I’ll be able to survive on Social Security alone.

Many of my co-workers have to watch the number of hours they work because they rely on food stamps and don’t want to disqualify by making too much money. There’s a food stamp office near my house, and I see people in scrubs, probably from home care agencies, going in and out all the time. Many of us qualify for heating assistance and Section 8 housing too.  The employers pay such low wages people can’t survive, so they need public assistance. Why should taxpayers subsidize profitable companies who regularly pay bonuses to their top management?

When the economy went bad around 2008, we lost a lot of good jobs. The economy recovered, but the companies never brought the good jobs back. When people are willing to work full-time, they should be making a living wage. It’s not fair that people are working so hard and yet can’t support their families.

I think America can do better; the companies can afford to pay us $15 per hour and still do well. It’s time for America to demand that companies become good corporate citizens by offering the workforce well-paid jobs with good benefits.

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