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Home-Care Workers Get Raise, Benefits

Times Staff Writer

As pay raises go, this one doesn’t seem like much.

Starting Wednesday, Ventura home-care worker Margaret Riggins will see her hourly pay increase by 89 cents. That comes to less than $20 a month for the time she spends caring for her elderly mother.

But for Riggins, who is among 2,000 home-care aides in Ventura County who recently won their first labor contract, the bump in pay represents a big-time breakthrough.

“That might be a tank of gas to get her where she needs to go,” said Riggins, 67, a retired telephone company employee who started caring for her mother full time this summer under the state’s In-Home Supportive Services program.

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“This raise was needed not just for me, but for everyone involved in the program,” Riggins said. “We have bills; we need to live too.”

Increasingly across California, workers who cook, clean and provide other day-to-day help to low-income elderly and disabled clients, who can include family members, are banding together to push for better pay and benefits and to improve the quality of care.

Home-care workers in California have unionized and negotiated pay hikes, ending years of struggle to live on wages often insufficient to keep out of poverty or off public assistance.

Home-care workers in more than two thirds of California’s 58 counties have hammered out labor contracts. Some now earn more than $10 an hour, along with a full slate of benefits, such as mileage reimbursement, pensions and paid sick leave.

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Statewide, 225,000 home-care aides provide services to more than 300,000 clients through the program, said to save millions of dollars a year by keeping the elderly and infirm living safely and independently at home and out of more costly care facilities.

“Every county will tell you these are the best workers in the world and they deserve so much, yet it has been a struggle because of the reality of funding and fiscal constraints,” said Fahari Jeffers, secretary-treasurer for the San Diego-based United Domestic Workers of America. The union, one of two in California that organizes home-care providers, represents 65,000 workers in 26 counties.

“It’s never really just about the money,” she said of the organizing campaigns. “It’s about providing care with dignity and jobs with dignity.”

Although home-care aides have been organizing in California since 1980, the campaigns were fueled by legislation adopted in 1999 that opened bargaining rights to them.

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In recent years, workers in several counties for the first time have hammered out contracts, including agreements last year that brought pay and benefit increases to 6,500 home-care aides in Orange County and 8,800 workers in Riverside County. Earlier this year, 10,000 home-care workers in Fresno County represented by the Service Employees International Union won their first contract, ending a four-year labor fight.

“It has been a long struggle,” said Tyrone Freeman, president of SEIU Local 434B in Los Angeles. With 126,000 home-care workers in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, it is the largest home-care local in the country.

“I think elected officials, despite their political alignment, have come to realize this is good public policy,” Freeman said. “And it’s OK to pay for good public policy.”

That doesn’t mean it comes easily.

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In Los Angeles, home-care workers won their first contract in 1999 only after a decade-long organizing drive. The union victory is believed the largest in modern U.S. history.

It didn’t take quite as long in Ventura County. SEIU organizers started knocking on doors about three years ago, urging home-care workers to unionize and demand better than their $7.11 hourly pay.

The effort paid off this month when workers endorsed a one-year contract that boosts pay to $8 an hour and extends health benefits to those working at least 80 hours a week.

“I believe from the bottom of my heart they deserve this, plus more,” said SEIU business representative Victoria Laurel, who went door-to-door for the organizing campaign.

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Patricia Guajardo’s son Francisco Jr. was physically and mentally disabled by spinal meningitis when he was 9 months old. He is now 26 and unable to care for himself.

So, as she has most of his life, Guajardo willingly does a mother’s duty. But come Wednesday, she will see her first pay raise in years and receive health benefits for the first time since quitting her cafeteria job 20 years ago.

“We just decided we’d rather take care of Franky ourselves,” said Guajardo, 53, who was among the home-care workers who lobbied county leaders for better pay and benefits.

“If the state had to do this work, it would cost a lot more money,” she said. “This little bit of money is going to help a lot of people.”

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