Home care workers gathered Tuesday to ask that the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors boost their wages and drop a caveat proposed in negotiations that the increase come with a limiting of access to health care benefits.
More than 50 health workers that provide long-term, in-home care were present Tuesday at the board meeting. Some spoke during a public comment session about struggling to live on earnings near minimum wage.
"You can't nickel-and-dime people who don't have nickels and dimes," said John Roe, a Danville home care worker who spoke to the board Tuesday.
The workers' wages are set at $11.50 per hour in Contra Costa County, according to Service Employees International Union Local 2015, the nation's largest long-term care worker union. That hasn't changed in nearly seven years.
Represented by SEIU Local 2015, home care workers have been in negotiations with the county since January to increase wages in a new labor contract.
Hospital nurses are also in negotiations with the county -- and have been for 15 months -- on a new labor contract. Last week, around 300 nurses packed into a Board of Supervisors meeting to ask for competitive wages as they held a two-day strike.
For home care workers, "It has been a really difficult set of negotiations," said David Werlin, a member strength director for the union.
Werlin said the county has called for a limit to be placed on the number of home care workers that have access to health care benefits in exchange for a wage increase.
"They seem to be committed to wanting to take away health care from the county's most vulnerable workforce," he said.
Werlin said he's hoping supervisors instead accept a gradually implemented wage increase, minus the health care stipulation.
During the meeting, the board did not respond to remarks made about the negotiations.
"With this low wage, this is not a job one applies for," Roe said. "It's more something you're thrust into."
Those who made comments Tuesday highlighted the importance of having a home care workforce to sustaining an affordable health care system, given the rising costs in hospitals and emergency rooms.
Roe and others also spoke about severe working conditions in the profession that they believe merit much more than current wages.
First-hand experience may be the only way to convey that, according to some of the workers.
Melody Lacy, a home care worker in Martinez, personally invited the board to spend a day with her as she works.
After Tuesday's board meeting, Lacy explained what they might see: starting with her waking up at 5 a.m. to prepare special food for the client she takes care of, using groceries she bought herself.
Lacy's client, a college professor who she said lives in poverty, can't afford groceries. She admits her own wage scarcely produces ample cash for it.
She has to be constantly attentive to her client's serious choking problem, she said. Because she's on hand to help around the clock, that means Lacy is prepared to perform a Heimlich maneuver even past midnight.
It's a problem that has Lacy spending hours cleaning vomit and drool off clothes and pillowcases during the day.
"But I'm willing to do it all, because this is such a valuable person with so much insight to contribute," she said.
Lacy joined other home care workers in loud chants, promising that they would continue to fight for a higher wage as they moved slowly out of the county's Administration Building after the board meeting.