Joyce Barnes has been a home-care worker in Virginia for 30 years, and she loves what she does; she left a full-time job in a hospital because she preferred working with patients one-on-one. “In home health care, I can be people’s eyes and ears for their family,” she says. “I can tell you about your mom, your parents, the things that you don’t even know because you’re not around as much as I am.”
She is also exhausted. Barnes works part time for two home-care agencies, where she makes $8.25 an hour with one employer and $9.98 an hour with the second. She cannot afford her employer’s health insurance. She does not receive paid sick days or vacation benefits. In the long hours of her work days, Barnes is responsible for nearly every aspect of her clients’ well-being: feeding them, bathing them, administering medications, taking them to doctor’s appointments, and shopping for necessities. She works with severely disabled, elderly clients, including a double amputee whom she helped coach through physical therapy. Even with long, draining hours, making rent and paying bills is always a struggle. “I’ll go to the grocery store and see people with baskets full of food and think, Man, I wish I could buy food like that,” she says. Her grocery budget is $80 a month; when she applied for food stamps, she was told she makes too much to qualify.
Barnes has thought about leaving the industry many times — most recently in 2016, when her teenage grandson came home from his first job, a janitorial position, and showed her his paycheck. Barnes recalls, “He said, ‘Nanny, look, I make $10.50 an hour!’ I said, ‘Baby, he gave you all that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, Nanny, don’t you get that much?’ I just smiled. I didn’t want my grandson to know how low I get paid.”
Instead of quitting that day, Barnes joined a union. A representative from the SEIU, the largest health-care union in the country, happened to come over a few hours after that conversation with her grandson to try and convince Barnes to become a member of her local. “I was trying to get rid of her,” Barnes says. “She said, ‘You have a voice.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to give you a chance.’ It was the best day of my life.”
Barnes was one of hundreds of domestic, home-care, and fast-food workers in 15 cities who took action last week with the Fight for $15 and a Union campaign in what feels like a do-or-die moment for the movement. Their demands are simple: They want to be paid enough to actually survive on what they make. President Joe Biden has been a vocal supporter of raising the federal minimum wage to $15 since his very first campaign speech in Pittsburgh. He helped carry states in the general election with support from union and Fight for 15 volunteers in Nevada, Arizona, and elsewhere. Organizers and advocates were thrilled when the measure was included in his administration’s $1.2 trillion relief plan unveiled in January. They were finally getting a return on their investment.
Now, as the relief package actually makes its way through Congress, the outlook is less sunny. Democrats are attempting to pass stimulus legislation through a process called budget reconciliation, which requires a slim majority in the Senate; it is unclear whether the $15 minimum wage would have enough support among Democratic senators to make it into the package. Senator Joe Manchin has said he would support an $11 minimum wage — just $1 more than a plan recently released by Republicans Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton. And reports circulated on February 18, just two days after Barnes and other Fight for 15–ers demonstrated on the state capitol steps in Richmond, that Biden’s own support is softening; he reportedly told a number of governors in a meeting that the $15 amount is “unlikely” to make it through. Even before it can be voted on, the $15 minimum wage faces a major procedural hurdle: getting past the Senate parliamentarian, who will determine whether it can even be included in budget reconciliation at all.
For minimum-wage workers, the debate is personal and agonizing. It is crushing to not just perform work that has been deemed essential by the government and struggle with essentials themselves — buying food, paying for shelter — but also to take the risk of speaking out and be told “Not yet.” Their demand for higher pay became desperate during the pandemic, when they were faced with the difficult choice of staying home and losing money or continuing to work at the risk of their lives. Home-care workers were especially vulnerable, even as states relied on them as hospitals strained to treat millions of COVID patients and nursing homes were thrown into crisis. Barnes says that when the pandemic hit, she received no instruction from her employer, “not even a pamphlet,” for how to continue her work safely. She bought her own gloves and hand sanitizer.
Barnes is anemic and says she is “doing the double mask and everything else” at work, “but it’s really scary. I’m afraid.” She’s unable to take days off for illness because she can’t afford to. The danger has persisted long before coronavirus. Barnes says a friend of hers once continued working through feeling unwell and died on the job. Barnes wasn’t even able to take time off to grieve her parents when they passed away in 2018.
“Those guys that make the decisions don’t know what home care is all about. They don’t know the work that we do,” Barnes said on a recent night at the end of her shift, sounding tired. She had little time to herself before getting on another Fight for 15 call. To her, the politicians haggling over this life-changing policy have no idea what it feels like to work tirelessly without the dignity of a solid, stable quality of life; they are far too willing to downplay the crisis for minimum-wage workers, who are largely women of color. Hearing a senator like Manchin say that $11 is a sufficient raise to their pay is “a slap in the face,” Barnes says. “When you’re older and you’ve been working so many years and you know you deserve better than this,” she said, “oh, it hurts.”
Between working with her home-care clients and attending union actions, Barnes is nervously watching the news. “It’s a lot of stress when you sit there and you’re wondering if it’s gonna pass. But I can’t turn away from it,” she says. Barnes is used to fighting; she stopped getting jobs at her old agency when she became vocal about being a member of the union. She was once kicked out of an orientation by another agency for talking too loudly about organizing. Still, Barnes is sick of telling family she can’t go on vacation with them, of taking care of other people without being taken care of herself. “If we could get $15 an hour, I could just work one job and live comfortable and be happy.”