Recognizing Our Essential Workers: The Women of the Long-Term Care Industry

President Biden just signed an executive order to improve care and support care workers. As a long-term care worker, I’ll keep fighting for Americans to receive the quality of care they deserve.

In the U.S., the home care industry is made up of 87 percent women, 62 percent people of color and 31 percent immigrants. Around the world, women make up 67 percent of the global health and social care workforce. (Getty Images)

I lost my mom when I was only 8 years old. This life changing moment, while devastating, made me the woman I am today. As the oldest of my siblings, I became the de facto mom to my younger siblings. This was my first experience as a caregiver. Although my mom left us way too soon, she is the reason I developed my compassionate, caregiver’s heart. 

My mom taught me how to be a responsible, patient adult, and how to look after both myself and other people. In the wake of Women’s History Month, I’ve been thinking of her: the legacy she left, the lessons she taught me and the world she would have wanted to leave behind. I am who I am today because of my mom, and I fight for a better life for all caregivers and the recipients of our care because of her. 

Recently, healthcare workers across the globe have been speaking out and taking action to protest poor wages and working conditions, particularly as conditions have worsened over the last three years of the pandemic. Strikes have made headlines in Britain, Scotland, France, Germany, Spain and beyond, as well as across the U.S. 

As a long-term care worker in California, it’s exciting to see this important activism on the global stage. We’re long overdue for systemic changes to take shape here in the United States. Care workers like myself—an industry that is almost entirely women of color—are some of the most disrespected, unprotected and underpaid workers in the country. Women represent just over 50 percent of our national population. Disproportionately, the home care industry is made up of 87 percent women. Sixty-two percent are people of color and 31 percent are immigrants.

Roughly 10,000 Americans turn 65 each day, and it’s largely women who are filling this critical role in our country’s healthcare system.

For most of human existence, women have been tasked with raising children and providing critical care to seniors, people with disabilities, those recovering from injuries or illnesses, and more. Later in life, I cared for my elderly father. I’m proud to be part of this important community of caregivers, but I have also experienced firsthand the challenges faced as a woman in the long-term care industry. 

Even though we play a vital role in caring for some of our most vulnerable individuals, home care workers are constantly excluded from the benefits and protections granted to other American workers. We’re paid poverty wages. Despite the conditions we endure, we barely receive any health benefits, paid sick days or hazard pay.

Carmen Roberts developed her caregiver’s heart through tragedy, after she lost her mom at the age of 8. The oldest, she became a sort of mom to her younger siblings. (Courtesy)

While I originally became a long-term caregiver because of my father, those in need of long-term care are increasingly women. Long-term care—both at-home care and in nursing homes—is the nation’s fastest-growing job sector, as roughly 10,000 Americans turn 65 each day, and it’s largely women who are filling this critical role in our country’s healthcare system. This paradigm of women caring for other women means that making an investment in long-term care is doubly beneficial for that gender demographic. 

Women currently earn 82 cents to the dollar compared to men, and the wage gap has remained the largest for Black and Hispanic women—something that is a pervasive issue in long-term care given the demographics of our industry. I’m tired of putting up with these circumstances, and I am tired of seeing women just like me experience the same frustration.

I am fighting with my fellow SEIU 2015 union members for improved wages and better working conditions for long-term care workers. Our voices have been dismissed by those in positions of power for far too long. And it’s not a coincidence that we are largely women, while those with the power to enact change are historically men. But we are working to change this pattern. I’m working to make my mom, and other women just like her, proud.

On Tuesday, President Biden signed an executive order to improve care and support care workers—the most comprehensive action yet to address this industry in crisis. This is a great first step in the right direction, and I hope for the sake of my community and our loved ones that this starts to pave the way for necessary change. We will take this win and use it to motivate our continued fight. 

In California, caregivers like myself are calling for direct bargaining with the state to meet the growing demand for care. Earlier this year, SEIU 2015 launched a campaign to pass a statewide collective bargaining bill. The proposed bill would bring much needed standardization to this industry and finally enable direct negotiations with the State to get us home care providers a living wage and the recruitment, training and retention needed to transform our workforce. 

Despite the challenges we face, we will continue to rise to the urgency of the moment. I’m proud to be advocating for this community and I will not stop sharing my story until the voices of women like myself are heard, our union members’ needs are fulfilled, and those in need of long-term care are able to receive the quality of care they deserve. 

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Carmen Roberts is an in-home care provider and serves as SEIU Local 2015’s first from-its-ranks executive vice president. SEIU Local 2015 is the largest union in California, representing nearly 450,000 long-term care workers (home care, skilled nursing facility and assisted living center workers) throughout the state.