Daily Editors' Notes

Minimum wage battle inches closer to long-term care

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James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

I remember with a sad chuckle the way my German friend Volker felt that American news coverage during one of his visits was too narrowly focused. Where, for example, were the stories about the Iraq-Iran war? he wondered.

Not the United States vs. Iraq or United States vs. Iran. But Iraq vs. Iran. From 1980 to 1988, the sound-alike countries waged the 20th century's longest conventional war against one another.

I shook my head and smiled back then. I knew what he was getting at, but many around me did not. This was insular America at its finest. Having endured the Iranian hostage nightmare the previous decade, we were well aware of that Middle East hotspot. But Iraq? Why worry about that small, harmless cradle of civilization?

We found out why less three years after Iraq and Iran settled their differences. Operation Desert Storm rolled over Iraqi forces and their infamous leader, Saddam Hussein, in just six weeks in early 1991. But that obviously didn't spell the end of Iraqi danger for America by any means.

In many ways, it was a big thread in a fragile sweater that started to unravel. The sweater is unrecognizable now.

The plain and simple message is it pays to know what's going on elsewhere.

That's what came to mind when I picked up the New York Times on Tuesday and read about fast-food workers planning widespread strikes and civil disobedience activities today in a quest for a $15 per hour minimum wage. It's not a new movement, but it might be on the verge of gaining significant momentum. We'll have a clearer picture by the end of today.

Union workers last staged mass walkouts at restaurants in May, when solidarity protests were held in 30 countries. This time, organizers have asked home-care workers to join them.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the union with the most home-care (and long-term care) employees, has encouraged its home-care aides to take part in today's protests. Many earn in the $8-to-$10-per-hour range and believe they should be paid about 50% or more per hour. Side-by-side, they will march with fast-food workers in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Seattle, organizers said.

Expect plenty of coverage from television programs, social media channels and other outlets (including McKnight's). Whether the heartland of America would rise up with a wave of indignation for (or against) the protesters was not clear as of this writing. A collective yawn was also a possibility.

But it definitely bears watching. This could become a significant thread in the caregiving landscape. Should home-care wages rise, pay rates for long-term care employees would certainly be pressured upward. Stepping back from that, more and more providers have recently added home care services to their offerings, which could create some ticklish intrafamily situations.

Labor shortages in long-term care are bad enough already in many places. Employers can ill-afford an exodus from skilled nursing to better-paying home-care positions.

Higher payroll would cut into already thin profit margins, and possibly force other higher costs, such as increased use of agency nurses to fill gaps.

It wasn't long ago that the SEIU made healthcare, and long-term care in particular, a focal point of recruiting and organizing efforts. The campaign paid off with increased enrollment, though rough estimates still place union membership at no more than 12% to 15% of the long-term care workforce.

Still, ask any long-term care owner how eager he or she is to see union elections take place onsite, and you'll have to make sure you don't blink and miss him or her fleeing out a side door.

SEIU has reportedly poured millions of dollars into the minimum wage campaign. An SEIU leader said her group's financial and physical support has helped portray $15 as a proper pay rate for many workers. (Federal minimum wage currently is $7.25 per hour; state and local governments may decree a higher rate, but not lower.)

Some low-wage protesters have already been successful. Seattle has adopted a $15 minimum wage, and San Francisco is considering following suit. Last week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he would ask his city council to raise the minimum wage to $13 by 2018.

The SEIU claims that past protests led the Los Angeles school system to agree to a new contract. It will pay 20,000 custodians, cafeteria workers and other service workers $15 per hour by 2016. They now average about $9 per hour. Long-term care operators should feel a chill from the mention of that last familiar number.

And, some will point out, the Los Angeles school workers hand out food to healthy young kids and sweep floors for their wage — not engage in the intensely personal, delicate human care that frail elders in long-term care require.

President Obama has called for raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. A Gallup Poll at the end of May showed that 71% of Americans favored an increase in the federal minimum wage. Nearly 1 in 5 (19%) wanted it to rise but remain below $10.10. Another 36% thought $10.10 was the right level and 16% thought it should be higher.

Earlier this summer, a group called the Center for Economic and Policy Research released study results that said states that raised the minimum wage had actually showed stronger job growth, instead of the other way around, as many conservatives and employers contend would happen. The debate is far from closed on that point, however.

But one thing is clear: While minimum-wage protests today might be taking hold in other cities, far from your doorstep, it would be unwise to lose track of them.

After all, it wasn't long ago that Americans didn't see much of a need to worry about Iraq.

James M. Berklan is McKnight's Editor. Follow him @LTCEditorsDesk.

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editor's Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor on Monday and Friday; Staff Writer Tim Mullaney on Tuesday, Editor James M. Berklan on Wednesday and Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman on Thursday.

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