Care Workers Are Essential. It’s Time to Build a Caring Economy.

We are two immigrant women and professional caregivers. Despite how crucial the role of care workers is for the well-being of our communities, we are highly undervalued.

In 2021, median annual wages for childcare workers were $25,460—or $12.24 an hour. Almost 95 percent of childcare providers are women, and almost 38 percent are Black or Latino. (Stephan Geyer / Flickr)

When crises strike, we turn to our friends, families and sometimes even complete strangers to provide an extra set of caring and supporting hands. Care workers have always played an essential role in our communities, from assisting with child care to providing professional support to the elderly. In a moment of crisis, care work becomes even more valuable, as many of us have learned throughout the global pandemic.

As COVID-19 rages on and our communities continue to face public health, environmental and climate injustices, the caregiving industry is going to become an even more salient part of the fabric of our society. At the moment, our government has a once in a generation opportunity to pass policies that would support fair pay and dignified work conditions for caregivers, and care workers are calling on our lawmakers to invest in our industry so we can continue supporting generations to come. 

There is no such thing as six feet away when we have to lift our patients, bathe them, feed them and change their clothes and bedding.

We are two immigrant women, one from Mexico and the other from Haiti. Our stories are different in many ways, but both of our homelands have been on the frontlines of the climate crisis and our communities have struggled under unjust economic disparities and global trade agreements. Finding work was difficult—even though one of us holds a medical degree in her home nation. After moving to the U.S., we both discovered new callings: a deep joy, gratitude and fulfillment in our roles as professional caregivers. 

And yet, the raging pandemic has made everyone’s lives more difficult, particularly for those of us who work in close contact with others. Every day, we leave behind our loved ones to take care of someone else, and every day we are worried about putting our patients, our families and ourselves at risk of contracting COVID-19. There is no such thing as six feet away when we have to lift our patients, bathe them, feed them and change their clothes and bedding.

The demands of our jobs ebb and flow with the demands of the world around us. When children who are exposed to toxic pollutants from diesel school buses or heavy duty trucks are sick at home with asthma, we provide emergency childcare. When inflation has increased the cost of everyday essentials and parents need to collect a paycheck despite the closing of schools, caregivers step in. When fossil fuel industry workers face health challenges due to a lifetime of occupational hazards, we are trained for home caregiving.

Caregivers are on the frontlines of every tragedy and disaster which makes us the perfect advocates for fighting for a fairer and safer world. As we enter year three of the pandemic, we have had to be retrained to provide safe and reliable care in an increasingly dangerous world. But what happens when natural disasters collide with a global pandemic? In some spaces, caregivers are already being trained for climate preparedness in the event of evacuation and injury. 

While we are willing to rise to any occasion, we should not have to take on huge risks to simply do our jobs in the face of completely preventable crises. We have learned to do our jobs in the midst of a global pandemic, preparing ourselves for the workday with masks, gloves and bodysuits. Yet, retraining does not negate the inherent risks to ourselves, families and patients that the current crisis has created.

A healthcare worker during the COVID-19 pandemic (Wikimedia Commons)

We can’t even fully fathom how much worse these work conditions will get if climate change is not mitigated. If our leaders finally act on climate injustices, from preventing illnesses due to toxic pollution to ending the need to rebuild after extreme natural disasters, the hazards to impacted individuals and their support systems would be eliminated. 

Crises also pose more than just life-threatening hazards to caregivers. When the pandemic hit, we were stuck relying on an outdated public transit system to get to work. As hurricanes and wildfires destroy our transportation infrastructure, commuting will get even more challenging. Supply chain issues during global crises make it impossible to access goods we need to do our jobs, like cleaning supplies and diapers. And then we can find these essentials, corporate price gouging, combined with inflation, pose another barrier to access. By investing in a Green New Deal, our government can address many of these challenges, including modernizing our transportation, but also schools and nursing home infrastructure, reducing the cost of drugs and protecting communities from climate injustices. 

Despite how crucial the role of care workers is for the well-being of our communities, we are highly undervalued. Our industry is often underpaid, under-resourced and performed by women of color, like the two of us. One in four home care workers live below the poverty line. Due to the financial strain of providing essential caregiving services, two-thirds of caregivers also work another job to afford the basics, including caregiving expenses. Most of us are denied even the basic right to join a union. That’s not a dignified life.

As caregivers, we too, are joining the ranks of the hundreds of thousands of people who are fighting for a more prosperous and just society. This is the moment where our leaders must prioritize the wellness of generations to come and caregivers are at the heart of making the vision for a better world, a reality.  

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About and

Cesia Alvarez works as an independent home health provider and is a member of Mujeres Unidas y Activas. She lives in San Francisco.
Melissa Laratte lives in Miami. She is a care worker and member of Miami Workers Center.