Sumer Spika: Home care workers unionize to bring dignity to work we love

On Tuesday, July 8th, I was proud to be part of the group who celebrated turning in thousands of cards signed by Personal Care Attendants (PCAs) and other home care workers from across Minnesota expressing our interest in forming a union. The move not only triggered the largest union election in Minnesota’s history, it was the first step in improving our state’s home care system so it works for those who need services and values the work of those of us who provide the services, some 90% of whom are women.

If you talk to the thousands of home care providers who signed cards, you will hear that same number of unique and powerful stories. There is, however, a common thread that helps illuminate why this is such a powerful movement: we love providing care for the seniors and people with disabilities who we serve.

For me, it is all about a gorgeous 6-year-old little girl named Jayla. She was born with a genetic disorder called Opitz Syndrome, has a pulmonary hypertension, and is deaf. She requires breathing treatments, help with toileting, and help doing many other daily activities. I love working with Jayla, but am constantly challenged by the poor working conditions in home care. I want to do everything I can to provide her with quality care but am left to my own resources to stay current on training, technologies, and the latest developments in health care.

On a personal level, the work takes a toll. Two years ago, I gave birth to my beautiful baby boy. Because my work offers no vacation time, I was only able to take one week off after I had a C-section. Further, I have struggled financially to provide for my own family because I care so deeply about taking care of Jayla. Too many PCAs struggle with similar situations. We are paid low wages with no benefits, no sick days, and no vacations. Many live in poverty and others have not had a day off in years. Some have seen their own health fail while they spend all of their energy taking care of someone else. I love the work I do but do not believe that anyone who offers his or her hard work should be relegated to a life of poverty.

We are proud that our work allows those we care for to continue living independently, but in the end, too many great home care workers are forced to leave for other jobs because they can't survive with the current working conditions. By coming together to form a union, we are fighting not only for ourselves, but also for the people we serve. We are saying that our work must be recognized as real and important work, and that home care workers will no longer tolerate being invisible.

In other states where home care workers have formed unions, they've seen increased wages and benefits while protecting the rights and budgets of their clients. Improvements in home care working conditions have reduced worker turnover, a chronic problem in our field that disrupts the quality of services clients receive.

Our state faces a looming workforce crisis in long-term care in the coming years as baby boomers age and the demand for services increases. By paying fair wages and benefits, and providing better training opportunities, we can stabilize this field and recruit new workers to fill the looming gap. What we cannot afford is inaction.

As our effort to form a home care union moved from the State Capitol to one-on-one conversations across the state, our resolve has only grown stronger. After the Supreme Court ruled on Harris v Quinn last week, we said that we would continue to stand together and fight for improved care, and that is exactly what we are doing.When we win our union election later this summer, we will be taking an incredible first step to improve the home care field in Minnesota.

Our work is important. Our work is valuable. Our work deserves dignity, respect, and recognition. When we win our union, we will be one step closer to our goal of making sure home care work is finally “Invisible No More.”

Sumer Spika is a mother of three and a home care worker who lives in St. Paul.

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  • With all due respect to Ms Spika, I am Pam Harris, Lead Plaintiff of Harris v Quinn, the First Amendment Supreme Court case that stopped the state from taking money (agency fees) from home health care providers who do not want to support a union. Since the decision, I have read many articles that miss the point we were trying to make by fighting back, including this one. We are families, not workers, and this is our story. There were over 1000 of us who voted for no union in an election that none of us asked for– overwhelmingly, we are women, of all colors. Most of us are moms who provide care for our significantly disabled sons and daughters. We want the freedom to choose who comes into our homes. We want the freedom to be able to provide care for our disabled loved ones without a contract between us. We want to make sure that the Medicaid funding intended to help provide for their care is used for their care. We want the freedom to choose whether or not to support a union. My co-Plaintiffs are all good women, known in their communities for being active in their churches, volunteering in the community and being the first to bring a casserole to a neighbor in need. Our sons and daughters are thriving and flourishing with our care. We want to be the person who provides care for our loved one. More importantly, it’s what they want. We are a family. We are your neighbors. You see us in the grocery store. You see us pushing a wheelchair and think to yourself, “I don’t know how she does it.” We live the life many of you fear. But really, we are no different than you. We work hard to provide for our family’s needs just like you. We pay our taxes, our utility bills and mortgages. We struggle at times, too. But in the end, we are just trying to do what’s best for our families. Ms Spika knows but chooses not to include the fact that people can still organize, join a union and pay dues. That has not changed. What has changed is now home care providers have the freedom to choose whether or not to support a union. Shouldn't everyone have a choice? - by Pam Harris on Tue, 07/22/2014 - 2:13pm

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Sumer Spika