Home health workers demonstrate outside Paraquad for higher wages | St. Louis Public Radio

Home health workers demonstrate outside Paraquad for higher wages

Jun 12, 2015

Members of the Missouri Home Care Union are asking providers of in-home services for the elderly and disabled to raise the wages of the attendants they employ. A few union members and about a hundred supporters demonstrated outside of Paraquad in St. Louis Friday to ask the nonprofit to honor a deal struck by the union and the state’s Quality Home Care Council.  

AFSCME members and supporters demonstrate outside of Paraquad, calling for higher wages for home health workers. The Missouri Home Care Union is affiliated with AFSCME.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

One union member, Elinor Simmons, has worked as a home health care attendant for about 30 years. She said she makes $8.50 an hour, but when she asked her employer for a raise, she was denied.

“It’s not a dignified, livable wage,” Simmons said. “I can barely pay my rent, I can barely pay my utilities. I can barely have transportation to get to and from work.”

Home health workers provide skilled nursing, physical therapy and other care for people who are aging, living with a disability or otherwise in need of assistance at home.

“It’s a dignified work,” Simmons said, who participated in the bargaining committee. “We make sure that [our clients] stay healthy. We encourage them. We triage them. We do things that they can’t do to keep them having a dignified, decent life. We should be paid for what we do.”  

Elinor Simmons, a 30-year home care attendant and member of the union's bargaining committee, speaks during a protest outside of Paraquad in St. Louis.
Credit File Photo | Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

In dispute is whether state contractors like Paraquad must abide by an agreement between a union of Missouri home care workers and the state’s Quality Home Care Council. The two reached a bargaining agreement last year that would lead to higher wages for many home care workers through an administrative rule change, which Governor Jay Nixon said he would support. But a joint legislative committee in the Republican-controlled legislature voted to block the measure. 

Union representatives said they believe the agreement is binding, regardless of whether it’s implemented as an administrative rule. The measure would allow people using home health services to determine their attendant’s pay, between $8.50 and $10.15 an hour.

Paraquad declined comment in the matter.  But Mitch Waks, the CEO and owner of Cooperative Home Care in St. Louis, said raising his employees’ wages without getting higher payments from Medicare and Medicaid would put him out of business.

“I would love to pay our workers more money. They deserve more money, they really do. They work really hard for the salary they get, and it’s just not enough,” Waks said.   

Cooperative Home Care owner and CEO, Mitch Waks, stands outside his business in the Hill neighborhood of St. Louis.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri’s Medicaid program pays vendors like Cooperative about $15 for an hour of basic home care. According to the Missouri Home Care Union, average pay statewide is about $8.60 an hour. The rest, Waks said, goes to overhead: case managers, insurance coverage, and payroll. Overall, Waks said his business operates on a 3 to 5 percent profit margin.

“I can’t see a decrease in reimbursement and an increase in wages and keep my doors open,” Waks said. “All their chest-beating and cheering for the underdog, what that amounts to is that close to 500 employees that I have will be out of work.”

Waks cited multiple concerns over how the deal was determined between the union and the Quality Home Care Council, which was established in 2009 after the passage of Proposition B. He felt his employees were intimidated by union members to unionize, and said companies like his were not represented in the bargaining process.

“If I was represented in that deal, I’d be happy to make that deal. They didn’t seek our input. They made a deal amongst themselves and the governor’s office,” Waks said. “Why should I abide by a rule that I had no participation in, when it’s going to drastically affect our ability to keep our doors open?” 

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