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.

Rising On-the-Job Stress

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.

Scant Savings

And she would have little personal savings to fall back on. Talag also has no set retirement plans or savings.

Her age places her in good company with other home health aides and personal care aides who, on average, are in their mid-40s, at the older end of the age spectrum for women in the civilian labor force.

By 2018, about a third of personal care aides are expected to be aged 55 and older, according to a December 2011 Paraprofessional Healthcare report, “Caring in America.”

Few of these workers have any sort of retirement or other savings to tap into as they age, says Robin Shaffert, a policy consultant for Caring Across Generations, a national coalition working to promote the rights of home care workers.

An estimated 2.3 to 2.5 million long-term home care workers are currently employed in the United States, according to Paraprofessional Healthcare.

Talag is paid weekly, by personal checks. She isn’t sure if this all comes out of her employer’s pocket or if a portion is subsidized by Medicaid.

After preparing and serving her employer breakfast she helps her dress and stands by during the hip exercises supervised by the physical therapist. That day her employer suggests that Talag start helping her do these exercises on her own.

Talag doesn’t have formal training in medicine or health care and this is her third elderly client with health needs.

She received a bachelor’s degree in accounting in her native Philippines, but never put it to use once she immigrated to the United States in the late 1990s.

First Bill of Rights

The New York City-based Domestic Workers United claims a membership of about 4,000 nannies, housekeepers and home care health workers.

But Talag, one of about 200,000 domestic workers employed in New York, has not joined this group, which in 2010 successfully lobbied the state for the passage of the country’s first bill of rights for domestic workers.

“I have a busy, full life,” she says. “I spend time with my family and with the Filipino community.”

Christine Yvette Lewis, an organizer for Domestic Workers United, told Women’s eNews in December that in the first year following the passage of the bill of rights it helped recoup half a million dollars in wages for members through the New York Labor Board.

Talag isn’t aware of the bill of rights and doesn’t seem to think she needs to know about it. Doing a good job and building relationships with clients is more her priority.

By late afternoon she has cleaned the house and helped her employer socialize with her friends. Her lunch break was repeatedly interrupted by her employer’s calls for help to move around and find things.

When she leaves to pick up dinner in the late afternoon she seems relieved. In the car, she straps in and pops a bite-sized Almond Joy into her mouth; her favorite, she says with a smile.

She’s hoping she will be able to leave by 6 p.m., but recently, it’s been closer to 7 or 8.

When she returns her employer is where she left her, reclining in the living room, waiting for dinner to arrive.

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Amy Lieberman is a correspondent at the United Nations headquarters and a freelance writer in New York City.

For more information:

Caring Across Generations:

The National Domestic Workers Alliance:

Domestic Workers United: