By Charlotte Nelson
More than 90 percent of the direct care work force is female. The men who are in these jobs are equally capable and committed, but there are few of them. So, addressing the needs of the direct-care work force is in reality a women’s issue — which is, of course, a human issue.
Those in direct care make up Iowa’s largest work force. They constitute one of Iowa’s fastest-growing employment opportunities. And direct care work is one of the most difficult occupations for attracting and retaining employees.
They are the home health aides, nurse aides, hospice aides and direct support professionals who serve people with disabilities and older Iowans in many different settings.
Direct care is one of the lowest-paying occupations in Iowa. Approximately 25 percent of these workers have no health insurance. They have few continuing education and training opportunities. Less than half have access to sick leave. Most don’t have a retirement plan other than Social Security. Many are eligible for food stamps and other needs-based benefits. Their work is physically and emotionally demanding.
They are grossly undervalued. Commonly they are seen as entry-level workers, as unskilled, as in a job that “anyone could do,” and as readily replaceable. Too many direct-care workers feel like second-class citizens, or, as one worker recently said, “We are viewed as a dime a dozen.”
Because the work force is predominantly female, the job often gets labeled as “women’s work.” The label implies that the work is not “real” work, or is not work of consequence. That it is not a career that can or should provide a decent living.
If this were predominantly a man’s occupation, it would undoubtedly be better paid and have better benefits. It would provide more and better training. It would be seen as important work that would be valued and respected as a worthy profession.
I am a woman, but I am not a member of the direct-care work force. I have recently, however, been the grateful recipient of direct care. And I know this: Changing the way we think about and treat the direct-care work force is not just the right thing to do, it is the critically necessary thing to do.
Why? Because we have a growing direct-care work force crisis to address. The demand for these workers is outpacing the supply. And how will we entice people to enter and stay in this profession if we don’t begin to think about its importance and to treat it with the respect it deserves?
That means better training, wages and benefits and more respect and recognition.
Why should you care about this? Because it is personal! At some point, in some way, you will find yourself depending on a member of the direct-care work force and the services these workers provide — for a parent, spouse, child, sibling, friend … or even yourself!
When that happens, you are going to want skilled and dependable workers who provide the very best care and support. You’ll want workers that you trust, who will treat you or a loved one with dignity and respect.
Want to help ensure that you and your loved ones will get the care and support that you want and need? One important action would be to engage candidates seeking state or federal elective office this fall, asking them if they care about direct-care issues and what they will do to address them. Contact current elected officials with the same questions.
Look for those who will become champions of the direct care work force. And when you find them, support them!
Charlotte Nelson of Des Moines is former director of the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women and was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011. Comments: email@example.com