By Maria Corpus
The corner of N. 20th and W. Wells Street shined bright on Monday as dozens of home care workers, community members and elected officials came together for a candlelight vigil to demand union rights, wages and other benefits.
After several months of negotiations, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare Wisconsin organized the vigil for the approximate 1,200 home care workers it represents at the Milwaukee Center for Independence (MCFI).
“We want to hold up a light to MCFI about its conversation on improving people’s lives,” said Dian Palmer, president of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin. “They want to take away home care workers’ voice.”
New Health Services (NHS), an affiliate of MCFI that provides home care for older adults and individuals living with disabilities, has a new contract that presents barriers to home care workers, according to Palmer.
Such barriers include NHS not providing paid time off, travel compensation as well as compensation for specialized training, and eliminating the home care workers’ union.
The new contract would also discontinue the cost of living adjustments home care workers received under the Milwaukee Living Wage ordinance, which passed in February 2014 and raised the minimum wage for county employees as well as employees of companies that have a contract with the county.
“To see that [wage increase] taken away when they’ve only had it for a few months is something that we have to fight for,” said Angela Lang, SEIU Wisconsin State Council coordinator.
“It’s unfortunate that they couldn’t enjoy it and that [the wage increase] is already on the chopping block.”
Standing outside the MCFI building, participants chanted, “Home care workers take a stand” and “The poverty wage has got to go.”
Sylvia Moreno was among the home care workers who chanted and expressed her concerns. She has worked for New Health Services for nearly two years and cares for one client.
“I’m here today to demand that NHS stop all of the union busting tactics and negotiate a contract in good faith that doesn’t take away our living wage increases or our paid time off,” Moreno said.
“We work very hard everyday and deserve the same dignity and respect we provide daily for our clients.”
More no noted her client is a family member who is concerned about the new contract and what it could mean for her home care. Moreno said she would have to move on to different work, if she could no longer practice home care and make ends meet.
“What would [my client] do?” Moreno said. “She’d be totally lost.”
Other home care workers, elected officials and supporters expressed their concerns at the vigil. Rosalynn Wolfe, co-chair of the Milwaukee-based African-American Roundtable, shared her story and explained her paralyzed brother uses the help of home care workers.
“These [workers] restore dignity to folks who have fallen and hope to those who are vulnerable,” she said.
Participants hope the vigil encourages NHS to consider union members’ voice before more contract negotiations.
“We want the employer to know that we want a contract, we want to get along with them, we want the organization to thrive, but we don’t want it to thrive off of the back of these low-wage earners,” Palmer said.
“We want them to be fair.”