Fix Florida's Low-Wage Crisis and We Can Fix Our Home Care Crisis

MIAMI - DECEMBER 14:  United HomeCare Services home health aide Wendys Cerrato carries bedding to the washing machine as she
MIAMI - DECEMBER 14: United HomeCare Services home health aide Wendys Cerrato carries bedding to the washing machine as she helps Robert Granville in his home on December 14, 2009 in Miami, Florida. The U.S. Senate continues to debate the need for the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) Act in the health care reform bill, which would provide a government-sponsored basic cash benefit to those needing long-term care services at home, in assisted living, or in a nursing facility. Without the help of United HomeCare Services Robert would be unable to continue to live on his own since he has limited mobility. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Last year, more than 6,000 Floridians died while waiting for home care services. As a home care worker, that number breaks my heart.

There are so many seniors and people with disabilities in our state who want to continue living independently in their homes but can't because there's a terrible shortage of workers like me. We have sky-high turnover among caregivers in Florida, and by far the worst home care gap in the country.

Sadly, it's no surprise why caregivers in Florida are leaving our profession. I've been working in home care for more than 20 years, but I'm still paid just $10 an hour.

We've been told for years that these low wages are unavoidable -- that our communities just don't have the resources to address urgent needs like home care. But that's not true.

We know it's not true, and we are pointing to the behavior of country's biggest companies as proof. The truth is, big corporations are using sidesteps and schemes to avoid paying their taxes, and as a result workers across industries are left paying the burden. And we're fed up.

Whether you work in home care or child care or even as a university adjunct, your low wages -- and your disappearing benefits -- are driven by this corporate race to the bottom.

That's why underpaid workers in Tampa and all across the country are coming together this Thursday -- just before Tax Day -- to call for a $15 an hour and union rights. It will be the largest-ever mobilization of America's underpaid workers, and we'll be focusing firmly on big corporations, such as McDonald's, and the role they play in hurting workers and the people we provide services to.

This broken economy isn't just driving down pay, it's driving workers out of critical fields.

And I see the problems in our home care system every day.

On the wages I am paid, I can't afford a car and take three buses and walk 20 to 30 minutes to get to my clients' homes. Even with a roommate, I can barely make my rent. And then I've got to choose between food and the medications I need because I can't afford both. My two clients are like family to me, and I love providing care services, but I understand why people have to leave the profession. For home care workers like me, it's a constant struggle to figure out how to pay the bills in this McJobs economy.

Home care in Florida is in crisis, but the solution is clear. Study after study shows that when home care providers are paid fair wages, more people join and stay in the field. That means our waiting lists could become a thing of the past. That means no senior would have to suffer unnecessarily.

America has the resources to make this happen. But right now those resources are lost to corporations that are ripping off workers, ripping off taxpayers, and ripping off communities. They are rigging the rules to avoid paying fair wages and evade their fair share of taxes. And it's costing the rest of us billions.

A study last year found that the low wages paid by U.S. businesses -- including hugely profitable corporations like McDonald's and others-- cost taxpayers $153 billion a year. That's the price tag for the public assistance that low-wage workers are forced onto because our country's biggest employers aren't covering basic necessities like health care.

It's time for big corporations to pay their fair share in taxes -- and pay every worker at least $15 an hour. That would have a huge ripple effect in Florida, where 52 percent of workers are struggling to get by on less than that.

For me, $15 an hour would mean something as simple as this: I could finally buy the new shoes I've needed for about as long as I can remember. Of course, this Thursday I'll be marching in my old pair of shoes. But I'll be marching for another reason to - for all of Florida, $15 an hour would mean our state's seniors and people with disabilities could rest easy knowing that there are enough workers to provide them with care services. And that's the change our communities need.

Patricia Walker is a certified nursing aide and home care provider in Tampa and a leader in the Fight for $15.