Jun 102013

by Janice Lynch Schuster

Consumer Voice recently hosted a webinar featuring speakers who explained the implications of immigration reform, particularly in terms of how the legislation could strengthen the direct-care workforce.  The full Senate will debate S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, as early as this week.

The Consumer Voice webinar can be viewed here:  https://cc.readytalk.com/cc/playback/Playback.do?id=3iqe17

Haeyoung Yoon, Senior Staff Attorney for the National Employment Law Project, gave an overview of current legislation, describing elements of the bill and what can be expected if it is enacted. She described the statistics–and the realities—that underlie the need for immigration reform, noting that 8 of the 11 million undocumented people in the country are in the workforce, comprising nearly 5 percent of it. Many of these individuals work in low-wage jobs, including home and domestic work, retail businesses, and the food services industry. “They are vulnerable to deportation and separation from the families. They live in a culture of fear, where employers use workers’ undocumented status to pay poor wages in substandard conditions,”  Ms. Yoon said.

She explained that our current restrictive immigration system limits the ways in which people can come to the United States; the current backlog includes some 4 million people, some of whom will wait 20 years under the current system. Ms. Yoon added that research indicates that “providing legal status is good for workers and families, but good for everyone. It increases earnings, creates jobs, and expands the economy.” The proposed legislation rests on four legs: border enforcement, workplace enforcement, legalization programs, and future flow programs (i.e., pathways that enable people to come to the United States).

Robin Shaffert, Policy Director at Caring Across Generations, described the nation’s burgeoning need for home care workers, and the need to improve worklife conditions for these workers, many of whom are immigrants, whose lives would be improved by provisions in the proposed legislation.

Shaffert noted that an estimated 12 million people need long-term services and supports (LTSS) today—that number will grow to nearly 27 million in years to come.  She catalogued rampant challenges facing today’s direct care workers: Median hourly wages of $9.53. Few if any benefits. High stress and exposure to hazards and injuries. Inadequate training, and a difficult pathway to citizenship. Nearly one-fifth of direct care workers are foreign-born, as are a fifth of personal care aides. Of these, about 35% are citizens, and 20% are permanent residents.

For those who are undocumented immigrants, Shaffert said, conditions are worse—they are paid even less, face more financial hardship, and endure problematic working conditions that include exposure to toxic chemicals and the risk of injury and illness.

Immigration reform offers one way to  improve these workers’ lives. Shaffert believes that this, in turn, will improve and strengthen the support workers provide to care recipients.

Marybeth Williams, a Public Policy Associate at Consumer Voice, discussed how immigration reform will have a positive effect on people who rely on home care services. Such reform is one step to addressing the future need for a trained, competent, workforce. Offering immigrants a pathway to citizenship will also offer them more workplace protections which will, in turn, improve their wages and working environment. In the end, it may lead to more consistency and less turnover. Consumers will have more protection, too, as reform will create better screening methods such as criminal background and employment history checks.

Williams pointed to the “strong personal relationships” people develop with paid caregivers, on whom they trust and rely. Quality of care, she said, can be contingent upon the quality of these relationships.

The program’s final speaker, Julia Feinberg, is herself a home care consumer and a member of Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association. Originally from Philadelphia, she attended college in California, in part with the ongoing support and assistance of an immigrant worker who provided her direct care. She now lives in Virginia.

Feinberg said that although her relationship with her caregiver is a professional one, her “well-being [is] intricately connected” to the well-being of her employee. Personal care assistants, she said, “have enabled me to live independently and to work full-time and become a taxpayer. Without this support, “I would have had to live at home or in an institution.” Instead, she is able to pursue her dreams and interests.


key words: immigration reform, direct care workers, personal health aides, domestic work, caregivers

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