For 17 years, Brenda Williams has worked 12-hour days, sometimes skipping family birthday parties to pick up an extra shift on a Saturday.
The 61-year-old home healthcare aide from North Tampa is a contracted worker paid $10 an hour — and doesn’t receive health insurance benefits. As a cancer survivor, she’s had to put off her own health needs, including an overdue mammogram, just to get by.
“It’s something that I love to do,” Williams said. “I just want to be paid what I deserve. I just want the respect and dignity that I deserve.”
On Nov. 3, Florida narrowly voted to raise the state’s minimum wage from $8.56 to $15 per hour by 2026. Williams and other workers across the state phone-banked for Florida to pass Amendment 2. She said the extra money would have helped her and her husband prepare for periods when they were out of work during the pandemic.
However, an industry official warns that increasing the wage too quickly may put financial pressure on home healthcare agencies, causing some to lay off workers or even go out of business.
Organizers of the ballot measure tried to lessen the pressure on small businesses by raising the minimum wage incrementally, said Ben Pollara, a political consultant who helped to get Amendment 2 passed.
The amendment increases the minimum wage to $10 an hour on Sept. 30, 2021, and raises it another $1 per hour for each of the next five years.
“Going to $15 would transform their life and make it possible for them not to choose between food and shelter, choose between clothes for their kids and paying the electric bill,” said Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, a national labor union representing workers in healthcare, the public sector and property services.
The union has been fighting for a $15 minimum wage since 2012, Henry said. Home healthcare workers are primarily women and people of color, she said.
In 2019, Florida had 76,040 home health and personal care aides, according to PHI, formerly known as the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, a national advocacy organization for care-workers and their clients.
The Home Care Association of Florida has reservations about raising the minimum wage so quickly, said Kyle Simon, director of government affairs and communications for the agency.
“It’s certainly a good thing for these workers, because they shouldn’t be considered minimum-wage workers,” Simon said. “But again, we have to be able to pay for it.”
The state’s Medicaid reimbursement rate is $17.46 an hour for home healthcare aides, who help with daily living, Simon said, and $15 an hour for workers who provide personal care services, such as household errands. If reimbursements to agencies for this care do not increase along with the minimum wage, providers won’t be able to offer the services, Simon said.
The association’s next step will be asking providers to pressure their state lawmakers to increase the Medicaid reimbursement and to call on the congressional delegation to address the Medicare reimbursement. Providers need to make enough to not only pay their workers, but to educate them, get background screenings and pay for licensure and accreditation, Simon said.
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“So they’re extremely concerned about being able to keep their doors open and keep their employees on their payroll,” he said.
Williams and her husband drained their $5,500 in savings to pay their rent while they both were out of work during the pandemic. She bought her own protective gloves, and her neighbor sewed cotton masks she could wear while working with patients.
“I want to be treated like all other workers in this field,” Williams said. “You don’t get vacation days. You don’t get to take time off from your job to deal with your family issues. I don’t have sick time. I don’t have any of that. Work day in and day out and everything.”
The state’s aging population continues to grow. Seniors will make up 30 percent of Florida’s population by 2030, according to the state Department of Elder Affairs. People 65 and older made up about 20 percent of Florida’s population in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The demand for home healthcare workers is expected to grow, too.
“They care for our loved ones, elders, people with disabilities, our children and allow the rest of us to go to work and have the peace of mind that our loved ones are well cared for,” Henry said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect name for the Home Care Association of Florida.