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If We Let Health Care Workers Lose Their Jobs and Homes, Who's Left to Care for Us?

Faced with cuts in programs and stripped of their bargaining rights, home care workers are trying to maintain the activist vigor of their scrappy past.

This story is part of  Dissent magazine's special issue on Workers in the Age of Austerity. Look out for more in the coming week. For more great coverage from Dissent, check out their website. 

Flora Johnson takes care of her adult son Kenneth, who suffers from cerebral palsy. She used to work as a cashier at a unionized grocery store and made enough to buy a home in the Washington Square neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. After she retired, her home became her workplace; she was paid by the State of Illinois to be the primary caretaker for her son. The state also helped her afford a lift to enable Kenneth to enter and leave their house in his wheelchair as well as to install safety bars in the bathroom. 

But home care is low-wage work, and Johnson found she lacked funds to make additional home improvements to keep her son healthy. She obtained a second mortgage to pay for such upgrades as replacing a leaky roof and removing the carpet, a constant impediment for Kenneth. Trapped in the predatory loan market that fed on black neighborhoods, she took on a second mortgage with a balloon trigger that soon escalated her payments from around $900 to over $1,400 a month. Eventually, she faced foreclosure on her home. “It would have been devastating if I had lost it,” she explains. “I just couldn’t see myself being in an apartment with him. They won’t let you add a lift and things like that.” As the former president of her union local, the seventy-eight-year-old Johnson knew how to fight back. 

When Johnson became a full-time care provider, she joined a Service Employees International Union local, now known as SEIU Healthcare Illinois, which had its roots among community organizers who had long fought predatory lending. Together with allies in a neighborhood group called Action Now, she confronted the bank that would strip her and others like her of their homes. 

In the late spring of 2010, a dozen community activists accompanied Johnson to a local branch of Countrywide, the giant mortgage firm that held her note. When the bank representative claimed there was nothing to be done, a leader from Action Now emphasized the importance of Johnson’s home as a necessary locus of caring, insisting, “Oh yes, you can do it. She has a son with cerebral palsy. She needs to stay in her own home.” Turning that into particular moral and political claim, backed by collective action, they succeeded in forcing Countrywide to eliminate the higher interest rate, bring the mortgage more in line with actual home value, and reduce monthly payments to what she could afford. Over the past two years, Johnson and her fellow and sister activists have repeated this tactic at dozens of banks that threaten the homes of other poor and working-class Chicagoans. 

The Great Recession has hit home-based workers like Johnson with a triple whammy. The housing and mortgage crisis threatened their very workplace—their homes or the homes of those they cared for; the fiscal crisis of the state led to cuts in funds that paid their wages through long-term care programs; and the conservative political backlash and Republican ascent of 2010 opened an assault on their hard-won collective bargaining rights, wage increases, and recognition as “workers.” 

Poor black women like Johnson have long cared for the elderly, ill, and disabled— whether in their own homes or in the residences of others. Sometimes, they do it out of love; many have referred to care work as “a calling.” Often, it is the best job they can find. Elsewhere in the United States, Latinas and other recent immigrants make up a third of those who perform daily tasks—bathing bodies, brushing teeth, putting on clothes, cooking meals—that enable people to live decently in their own homes. But in Chicago, African Americans still dominate this workforce. They mostly care for elderly and disabled people who qualify for Medicaid and SSI (Supplemental Security Income). 

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