By Vic Bedoian
Eight people, including United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, were arrested on Aug. 20 for blocking a meeting of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, as hundreds of union members, local elected officials, faith leaders and social justice activists rallied in support of a fair increase in wages for In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) workers.
The densely packed crowd inside Fresno County’s Hall of Records rang purple cowbells and chanted “shame, shame, shame” as they amassed in front of the chambers of the Board of Supervisors, risking arrest for civil disobedience. Hundreds more filled the third floor of the Hall of Records at the Board of Supervisors meeting.
The issue was a modest wage increase for IHSS workers. The community members were there to shame the supervisors into a fair increase in hourly pay after 12 years of working for minimum wage without any pay raise. The IHSS program exists to provide home care for people who are disabled, seniors and others who are unable to care for themselves.
Although the supervisors, who had gone into executive session, weren’t there to see the protest or the arrests, Huerta was. “The home care workers of Fresno County have not gotten a raise in pay in over 10 years,” she said. “They work at minimum wage, they don’t have any health benefits and [the] supervisors who make tens of thousands of dollars per year will not vote to give them a raise.”
Outside in Courthouse Park hundreds more rallied. Home care workers are demanding an increase of a dollar an hour, but the county offered a mere 10 cents per hour raise. Meanwhile, the supervisors gave themselves a pay increase of $20,000 a year. This comes as the senior population of the county is expected to increase by 106,000, according to the California State Plan on Aging.
Patrice Brown gave up her profession to take care of her sister who has cerebral palsy, “I have no breaks, all my time is hers. I get minimum wage, $12 an hour, and it’s not fair. I work hard. I should be getting respectable pay.
“I was a Microsoft engineer before I was an in-home care provider. You live at what you earn. I earned a lot more than I get now so I struggle to pay bills. I struggle to survive.
“For me, it’s a choice as to whether I pay my light bill or I eat. I pay my gas bill or I eat. Or I take my rent, my gas bill and my light bill and figure out how to pay my rent.”
This is an issue that strikes close to home for Fresno City Council Member and Congressional candidate Esmeralda Soria. Her father recently had to quit his job to take care of her mother who came down with dementia. She says a pay raise for caregivers is long overdue and will actually save money because people in need of assistance would otherwise have to rely on high-cost institutional care.
“They have been doing the hard work,” notes Soria. “They have been patient. You know we did go through a recession, but it’s time our Board of Supervisors stands up and says ‘we value our home care workers and we’re going to give them a raise.’
“They’re providing just some of the most hard work that is needed for our loved ones here in our community. And with minimum wage and some of them have been working only 20 hours a week. Think about it; none of us could live with those wages.
“And in fact, this program saves our community millions of dollars because our loved ones don’t have to go to a home care facility.”
Union representatives have been negotiating with the county for almost a year trying to get a reasonable pay increase for IHSS workers. Meanwhile, the county is offering an hourly raise of just one thin dime.
Dillon Savory, executive director of the Fresno-Madera-Tulare-Kings Central Labor Council, says that Fresno County’s 17,000 caregivers have been systematically undervalued in the workforce and that the county’s offer is not only insulting but also threatens the stability of the IHSS program.
“Recently, the county came to the bargaining table after nine years,” says Savory. “I’ve met with the union; they haven’t had a raise in 12 years, and this is a quasi-government program so it’s a federal, state and local partnership that pays the workers, and the county here is responsible for only 17% of any raise, although they have the authority to give it.
“It’s just a slap in the face for folks. We’ve got folks that have Ph.D.’s who left their profession to take care of their wife who had a seizure or their elderly mother or what-not.
“People want to believe that these folks are just ‘low-wage workers who can’t do anything else.’ No, these people care about a family member generally, they help their neighbors, and the county government basically looks at them like they’re the bottom of the barrel.”
The peaceful march, rally and civil disobedience action was led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2015, clad in their signature purple t-shirts. They represent 385,000 seniors and people with disabilities throughout California.
A large contingent of Sheriff’s deputies was present to watch over the protest and efficiently make the arrests without incident. After the arrests, participants gathered outside in the park for food and a program.
Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.