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Opinion: On Veterans Day, honor our service with commitment to care

November 11, 2021

Military families know better than anyone how crucial home care is. That’s why two Virginia veterans are coming together to demand investments in our care system.

Published in Virginian Pilot

This Veteran’s Day, we honor the sacrifices made by those who have served this country by calling attention to a crisis happening across our commonwealth. We’re failing to adequately support the veterans, older adults and folks with disabilities who need care, as well as those who provide it.

Military families know better than anyone how crucial home care is. That’s why two Virginia veterans are coming together to demand investments in our care system and collective bargaining for our caregivers. One of us, Tony Hedgepeth, is an Army veteran and home care worker. The other, Virginia Sen. John Bell, served our country in the Air Force.

Virginia is home to more than 780,000 veterans, including many who live with long-term trauma and physical disabilities. They depend on home care, and workers show up to support them without fail.

Virginia is also home to more than 48,700 home care workers who make a median wage of just $9.84/hour ($16,500 a year), which is far from enough to support a family. Forty-two percent of Virginia home care workers rely on public assistance to survive. Many are forced to leave the industry in search of livable wages and better safety standards, which only decreases quality of care.

Tony has spent 20 years supporting World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War and Gulf War veterans with their medical needs, chores and more. Several live with long-term disabilities or severe PTSD. As their advocate, he helps them lead independent and healthy lives.

Tony’s current client — a Gulf War veteran — needs a higher level of care than the eight hours of daily assistance he can afford. Tony has not been paid since July and is constantly subjected to the whims of his client’s insurance company. Even when he is paid, his wage is only $9.20/hr.

We know these challenges are industrywide. Older adults and people with disabilities aren’t getting the care they need. There are currently 191,000 people in Virginia who need help with daily tasks at home, such as dressing and bathing. And as our population ages, we’ll need to fill 103,000 home care jobs by 2028.

If we don’t act swiftly to implement solutions, future generations — our veterans, grandparents, parents and eventually, ourselves — and those who care for them will suffer.

That’s why care workers have been building power together, demanding the right to come together in a union and bargain collectively — something Virginia law doesn’t currently allow. With a seat at the table, home care workers can fight for better wages, benefits, standards of care and a brighter future for their families and their clients.

We know that change is possible because we’ve seen it happen when workers organize and demand it. Throughout the pandemic, members of SEIU Virginia 512 came together to advocate for themselves and the clients they serve, ultimately winning PPE, hazard pay, paid sick leave and more. Now, they’re demanding Virginia leaders write home care workers into labor law and enable them to collectively bargain a union contract.

Sen. Bell is proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with Tony and his fellow SEIU 512 members to demand home care workers collective bargaining rights, which will both honor Virginia workers and improve quality care. Essential workers deserve respect, protections and good pay, not only to improve their lives, but also to better support their clients.

If there’s one thing we learned in the military, it’s that we are more powerful as a collective than as individuals. Today, we call on Virginia’s legislators to honor the service of our veterans and the people who care for so many of us by passing collective bargaining for home care workers and, in doing so, help solve our care crisis.

Tony Hedgepeth is a Richmond home care provider and member of SEIU Virginia 512. Sen. John J. Bell represents District 13, which includes parts of Loudoun and Prince William counties.