Audra White loves her job caring for a 55-year-old man and a 51-year-old woman who need help with everyday tasks, but her paychecks from the state of Maryland leave her living below the poverty line.
"I bathe them, wash their clothes, run errands, talk to them. It's like a second family. You bond with them," said White, 39, a contract worker for the state in a program that provides Medicaid patients with in-home care. As a personal care assistant, she cleans and cooks and will even arrange cans in the cupboard so all labels are facing front if that's what a client wants.
The state of Maryland pays her a maximum of $40 a day for eight hours' work. One of 3,000 personal care assistants who work as contractors for the state, she averages less than the $5.15-an-hour federal minimum wage. The workers haven't had a raise in 19 years. White also has no health insurance, workers' compensation, sick leave, paid vacations or unemployment insurance. "I don't even have direct deposit,' said White, who has worked for Maryland's Medical Assistance Personal Care program for six years.
Now, Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) has included a raise for the workers in this year's budget that could mean an extra $80 a month for White, though it still would leave her below the poverty line. Personal care assistants plan to rally in support of the hike and request other benefits in Annapolis Thursday (March 10) when lawmakers have scheduled a hearing on the issue.
White will demonstrate with organizers of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and hold her sign that says, "Gov. Ehrlich, don't turn your back on those who care."
Rundown of states with living wage legislation
The "living wage" issue cuts in opposite directions. Proposals in five states would require higher-than-minimum wages statewide, similar to local ordinances in 123 cities and counties. Other states consider blocking localities from setting living wage rules.
States where legislation to require living wages was introduced this session:
States where bills were introduced that would restrict cities' attempts to set their own living wage ordinances.
Ehrlich last year vetoed a $10.50-an-hour "living wage" law, passed by both houses, that would have required higher pay for those working on state contracts. Former California Gov. Gray Davis (D) also vetoed a bill in 2003 that would have required his state and its contractors to pay a minimum $10-an-hour wage. Davis said the bill would cost the state too much.
This year, five states -- Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Tennessee -- are considering living wage bills, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But so far, no state has adopted a law requiring a higher-than-minimum wage for state contract employees, a group that can include home care workers, parking attendants, janitors, food service workers and security guards.
Living wage proposals have had greater success at the local level. Every state except Alabama, Idaho, Maine, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and West Virginia has at least one living wage ordinance at the local level, according to the International Labor Communications Association, an organization of labor media outlets affiliated with the AFL-CIO. In all, 123 cities and counties have enacted local living wage laws.
In Maryland, White said "19 years of excuses" over no pay raise for personal care workers is enough.
Her paycheck doesn't go far, she said. She makes the 45-minute trip between her two clients on the bus, which costs $16.50 a week. Her rent is $262 per month. She receives $38 a month in food stamps to help feed her daughter, Byronna, 11. They like to rollerskate, but admission to the rink costs more than two hours' work for White.
The federal poverty threshold for a family of two is $13,020 annually; White's gross pay amounts to $10,400 a year.
"To me, it speaks a lot about the state of Maryland and the politicians. They don't think much about elderly people and the people who take care of them," White said.
John Folkemer, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said, "We pay for a service, and it is not defined in terms of hours. We've always said we wish we could be paying more. It's a matter of the budget. They are not paid sufficiently for what they are doing, and we will be making every effort."
When the program started 20 years ago, pay levels were intended as stipends, not salaries, for friends and neighbors who were providing care. The program has evolved beyond its original mission, Folkemer said.
Personal care clients in Maryland are assessed at one of three levels of care, and the state sets the reimbursement rates, issues paychecks and regulates clients' eligibility standards. White's two clients are classified as Level 2, which means they require two to five hours of care paying $20 a day per client. Clients requiring shorter visits are Level 1, paying $10 a day. Full-day care pays $50 a day.
The proposed raise would keep full-day care at the current $50 wage but increase the other levels by 10 percent. More intensive Level 2 care would pay $30 a day per client.
Folkemer said the state can pay personal care workers the equivalent of sub-minimum wages because, "They are not paid as employees."
Supporters of living wage laws say they would help low-income families make ends meet by requiring that public dollars, such as government contracts, are not used to create jobs that pay sub-poverty wages. States such as Oregon and California already regulate contractors with "responsible contractor" laws that require them to meet quality standards but do not set wage levels.
Washington Rep. Mark Miloscia, D-Federal Way, introduced a living wage bill that went nowhere this year. Miloscia said he has introduced the living wage bill for the past couple years because, "At least the government should pay people decently. I'm Catholic. And I firmly believe that ... businesses improperly decide to pay people poverty wages and pay themselves and high-ranking people a very good wage, and I think there's a question of morality involved in doing that."
Miloscia said his bill was intended to help home health care workers and other state vendors. He said it died this month because he said he was unable to get action from any lobbying groups or grassroots organizations.
Opponents of living wage laws, including associations of small businesses and the National Restaurant Association, say living wage laws don't achieve the intended result of helping people out of poverty.
"The living wage hurts the worker in reality," said Trevor Martin, who oversees labor policy for the American Legislative Exchange Council, an association of conservative state lawmakers that promotes model laws to preempt cities from setting their own wage levels. "If an employer is forced to pay a certain minimum wage beyond the standard minimum wage, the employer is forced to find workers that have the skills and experience to justify that wage. It hurts teens, the elderly and the unskilled when wages are artificially high."
Four states -- Georgia, Nebraska, New Mexico and Virginia -- are considering bills supported by ALEC that block cities from creating their own living wage policies. Nine states -- Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and Utah -- already have laws on the books that preempt city-level living wage laws.