By Amy Lieberman
Thursday, January 19, 2012
What's it like to work in one of the most female-dominated occupations? Amy Lieberman kicks off our series with a day in the life of a home health care worker outside New York. Vicky Talag loves her work but doesn't feel right asking about a raise.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Vicky Talag's 15-minute morning drive to work ends at a two-story house in the comfortable suburb of Westchester, N.Y., just after 8 a.m.
She lets herself in, creeps through the dimmed foyer and points to the staircase. "She's still asleep," the 52-year-old whispers.
She bustles around the white-wallpapered kitchen, sweeping mail off the table and plugging in the coffee pot. Talag then darts upstairs to wake her employer, an 83-year-old woman who wants to remain anonymous in this piece.
When Talag returns, she sits and slices prescription pills with a pill cutter. As she works, she talks about her job here as a home health aide, which she held since 2009.
Until a few weeks ago she worked five days a week, with days often stretching to 12 or 15 hours.
"I'm supposed to work 10 hours a day, but I often wind up doing more than that," Talag says. "But I need to act like I am taking care of my mother."
Talag has so far received no overtime pay or raise in this position, after almost three years. She hesitates to bring up these issues with her employer, who has suffered a series of health setbacks.
"If she is happy with me it is up to her to increase my pay. I want to ask her, but it isn't always the right time," Talag says. "When I brought her home from the hospital, I couldn't let her stay alone, so I stayed with her here. But I am stretching myself."
One week at the end of December, Talag worked a 24-hour shift. The next day, she felt exhausted and broke down crying. Then she took the next day off. She rarely uses her sick or vacation days, but when she does, an independent geriatric care manager arranges a replacement.
Like Talag, an increasing number struggle with on-the-job stresses.
Health care support workers who required days away from work because of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses rose 6 percent from 2009 in the United States to 283 cases per 10,000 full-time workers in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Talag recently asked her geriatric care manager to change her schedule, to eliminate her Monday hours.
Now she will work Tuesday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. She says her employer didn't take the news very well at first, but has come around to the idea of change.
"Four days is enough for us to be together," she says.
Relatively well off compared to others in her field, Talag's contract--drawn up between her and her client--gives her five paid sick days, five holiday days and a two-week vacation annually. She covers her own health insurance.
The median hourly wage earned by home, care and personal assistance workers in the home health care industry was $9.40 in 2010, according to Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute National, a New York-based research and policy organization that promotes quality direct-care jobs.
That income lumps these workers "in the same category as teenage babysitters when it comes to how much they make," U.S. President Barack Obama said in a White House press conference at the end of December, when he announced a plan to extend the Fair Labor Standards Act, which grants minimum wage and overtime pay to these workers.
Talag earns more than minimum wage but is not willing to say publicly how much more, except that she is not paid for the hours she spends beyond what the contract calls for.
Her income, combined with that of her partner, allowed the couple to purchase their Westchester house and live comfortably, for the moment.
If Talag were to lose her job, though, she believes incorrectly she would be eligible for unemployment insurance and disability payments because she pays her taxes as a self-employed individual.
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