In-home support workers plead for pay increase

Ben Irwin

Workers helping elderly and disabled demand pay increase amid the pandemic, saying “minimum wage is a disrespect to the work we do.”

TULARE COUNTY – In-home support has been an essential service for many elderly, blind or disabled Tulare County residents who require assistance to remain safe in their homes.

The lockdown on skilled nursing facilities with the outbreak of COVID-19 has highlighted the need for in-home support, safe from petri dish nursing homes—by late June 2020, 91 of the county’s 113 COVID-19 related deaths were related to three major outbreaks at skilled nursing facilities in Visalia, with the outbreak at Redwood Springs Healthcare Center being the largest in the state. Months into the pandemic, Tulare County in-home support workers began pleading for a pay raise.

In-Home Support Services (IHSS) originally began in the 1950s with the intent to provide polio patients quality of life and independence out in the community, as opposed to being institutionalized. Today, the program provides assistance to those aged 65 and up who are Medi-Cal, supplemental security income or state supplementary payment eligible living outside of a hospital, nursing home or skilled nursing facility. Services range from grocery shopping and housekeeping to more hands-on help like bathing, assistance with prosthetics and ambulation. Eligible persons in need are given a ranking by a social worker based on their abilities and inabilities and the state provides set times of service allowed based on these rankings.

IHSS providers began sounding off in September, when Porterville resident Sandy Brown, a care provider of 8 years, voiced her concerns to the board. Brown said the limit to one item per person at stores for essential items has forced care providers to make multiple trips for their clients, putting themselves at further risk of exposure to COVID-19.

“We put ourselves at risk every day to provide care for our clients,” Brown said. “I am sad to have to be here to beg this leadership for a liveable wage.”

Richard Ituri, a Tulare County in-home care provider and representative of SEIU 2015, a California long term care workers organization, also took a stand in September to air his discrepancies with the board.

“I’m disappointed in our board of supervisors, who have not prioritized home care workers,” Ituri said. “We are deemed essential. It’s really disappointing to see the board nickel and dime us. We’re just asking for a living wage…minimum wage is a disrespect to the work we do.”

Ituri said to his dismay about a year of contract bargaining had bore no fruit. During public comment at the Oct. 6 board of supervisors meeting, a district 4 resident who had been providing in-home services for her aunt for six years asked for the board to show leadership and give in-home support workers a wage increase, something she said many counties had already given in contracts with SEIU 2015.

SEIU 2015 did not respond to a request for an interview with The Sun-Gazette. As of March 2021, the average IHSS independent provider wages in California is $14.62 an hour. In Tulare County, wages are below state average at $14.00, riding even with California’s 2021 minimum wage for employers with 26 employees or more. In San Francisco, IHSS workers will be making $18.00 an hour starting July 1, though cost of living is included in the calculations.

After months of pleas for pay during public comment, the board received a presentation from the Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency March 2 on the IHSS and it’s finances.

Angie Arroyo, the unit manager for IHSS with TCHHSA, said she’s been managing the program for the last four years. Over that time she said as the program has become more accessible, she’s seen an increase of around 1,000 recipients a year, which has also brought in more providers. As of December 2020, there were 5,370 recipients and 4,535 providers in Tulare County with over 563,000 work hours authorized. The program saw about 203 recipient applications a month in 2020.

Changes in the state budget over the years have begun to shift the financial burden of IHSS toward the county level. The federal government covers about 50% of IHSS funding, while the State pays 65% and Tulare County 35% of the non-federal share. Tulare County is slated to pay $6,456,700 for IHSS in fiscal year 2020-2021 with 4% annual inflation, which includes provider wages. However, as of Jan. 1, 2022, current law will change these ratios to 35% State and 65% County.

The county is currently in labor contract negotiations with SEIU 2015.

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