Personal care attendants looking to unionize

In-home healthcare workers caring for family members feel they deserve better pay  



By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer


Personal care assistants (PCAs) are persons who care for elderly and disabled folk at home. Clara R. NaKumbe, age 72, gave up her private daycare business to take care of her adult son Siran, who was stricken several years ago with multiple sclerosis.

“When he first got it, he could still do some things for himself,” recalls NaKumbe. But soon thereafter, Siran had to move into her North Minneapolis home where he could receive 24-hour supervision and care.

“He has to be fed. He lost his sight. His mind is still good, but he can’t walk. All his chores have to be managed for him. We didn’t want to put him in a facility,” continues NaKumbe. “We decided to do what we can for him at home. This is going into my ninth year.”

Clara NaKumbe has taken on the role of personal care attendant for her son for nine years. Photo by Charles Hallman
Clara NaKumbe has taken on the role of personal care attendant for her son for nine years.
Photo by Charles Hallman

Between herself, another son, and her daughter who is a registered nurse, Siran gets around-the-clock care. “This is a 24-hour job. Someone has to always be in the house with him. He cannot be left alone, even for a little bit,” explains NaKumbe. “This is not a babysitting service. He will be 40 this year,” she declares

However, the State seemingly didn’t agree that the work she is doing is worth her being paid a fair wage. “If he was in a facility, for the care he needs they would be paying a lot more,” says NaKumbe, who gets paid for only 11 hours each day. She simply explains that the main pay differential was because Siran is her son.

“People like me taking care of family members have come to understand that family members are more comfortable with people they know as opposed to strangers taking care of them.”

Last March, a Ramsey County judge ruled that the State could cut by 20 percent the pay of NaKumbe and nearly 7,000 other Minnesota PCAs who care for low-income clients who are also family members. The cuts later were restored. NaKumbe notes that pay for family PCAs range from $9 to $12 per hour.

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare MN President Jamie Gulley told the MSR that because wages for in-home healthcare workers typically are low, “It is very difficult to find someone to be a specific provider. The turnover rate is very high. The people who need this care usually go to family members.”

Gulley says his group has been lobbying the Minnesota Legislature for years to change current state laws that do not allow in-home healthcare workers to be unionized.

NaKumbe says she supports unionizing PCAs: “We need the right to unionize so that we have some say so.” Gulley says that after years of working toward this goal, he believes that the Minnesota Legislature this session may be more receptive to passing legislation that would allow in-home PCAs to unionize.

“We did not feel that we could make it happen unless we had the legislature and the governor [both] being in support” of this idea, Gulley notes of the DFL now in control of both state legislative houses and the governor’s office. “We believe that we have a majority that does support it. We feel much more confident this year than we have in the past.”

With the high turnover rate, offering higher pay for those like NaKumbe who take care of family members would make being a PCA more beneficial for such providers. “They’re family members, and they are going to [take care of them], but they don’t take into consideration that I have a mortgage, lights, gas, water, food [to pay for],” she notes.

Outgoing U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis has said that many of the country’s home-health workers are Black and work for “poverty wages” as low as $35 a day.

“Yes, we do this because we love him and we want him here,” says NaKumbe of her son, who is one of four children. She also believes that there is a cultural misunderstanding regarding family PCAs: Blacks and other people of color typically believe in taking care of their own, and putting them in a facility would be the last resort.

“This is something as a culture we always have done,” NaKumbe says. “I don’t think other people understand how we look [at this] as a culture.”

The issue of PCAs being fairly paid needs to be addressed, states NaKumbe. “It raises people’s consciousness on what is going on. If we [family PCAs] all said tomorrow, ‘We are not going to do this — you [the State] just do it,’ there wouldn’t be enough places to put them.”

In a 24-hour nursing home facility, care attendants are responsible for more than one patient, yet the cost is approximately $215 per day or $1,505 per week. In contrast, NaKumbe provides 24-hour, one-on-one care for her son and splits her $11-per-hour salary, totaling approximately $847 per week, with her son who helps to care for Siran. This salary only compensates them for 11 hours of care per day.

NaKumbe also points out that she didn’t plan to be a PCA. “Before this, I was very active in the political system. I gave up a lot” to care for her son. “I never knew my son would get sick.

“He had a good job as a chemist,” NaKumbe explains. “[He] planned on working, getting a family… [Then] this happened,” she continues. “This can happen to any of us, to any family. Nobody knows.”

According to a 2011-12 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, personal-care aides and home-health aides are expected to show the fastest employment growth among all occupations, adding more than 700,000 jobs over a 10-year period.

NaKumbe says she wants “people to see the value in what we’re doing.”


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