Letter to the Editor by SEIU 775 Caregiver, Laurel Jennings

During this pandemic, thousands of families across Washington are struggling to get by. I know this firsthand because I am one of the people struggling to pay my bills due to the rising cost of living. I’m a long-term caregiver, and if my hours get cut, I still need to provide for my family by putting food on the table and keeping a roof over our heads. Hazard pay has made a huge difference throughout this pandemic, and still a lot of us are taking out loans just to pay our bills.

This is why lawmakers should pass the updated Working Families Tax Credit — HB 1297 – so that families have additional cash to meet all of our needs. The Working Families Tax Credit will provide an extra $500 to $950 each year, which will make it a lot easier to pay our living expenses.

A recovery rebate through HB 1297 would go a long way with me. Flexible cash for us working families would provide help to the families like mine get by during this difficult time. This is why I urge lawmakers to deliver this relief to families. Pass HB 1297, the updated Working Families Tax Credit.

Read in The Everett Herald.

Letter to the Editor by SEIU 775 Caregiver, Barb McQueen

I’ve been an in-home caregiver since I was 17 years old, and I am now past the age when most people retire. At the beginning of this pandemic, our lawmakers called caregivers like me essential, and across the state we worked to keep our clients out of hospitals overrun with COVID-19 patients. And while we do this essential work, we’re also the ones who are paying outrageous taxes; way more than our fair share compared to our wealthy neighbors.  

I’ve kept working, caring for my client who also lives in Sequim, all through this pandemic. I have to keep working just to make my bills every month, all while also paying 5 times more of my income in taxes than the mega-wealthy in our state. It’s these few individuals in our state who’ve profited extraordinarily during the pandemic and its long past time they paid their fair share as those of us who worry about buying groceries or paying for a medication.   

I thank Senator Kevin Van De Wege for supporting the working people of Sequim, like me, by voting to add a capital gains tax on extraordinary profits (SB 5096) and strongly urge Representatives Mike Chapman and Steve Tharinger to pass it also. We deserve an economy and a tax system which works for everyone, not just the wealthy. 

Read in the Peninsula Daily News

Letter to the Editor by SEIU 775 Caregiver Julie Sparkman

I was drawn to Spokane for of its hometown feel and because I thought it was a place where a positive life was possible. Although I’ve never had any negative interactions with our police, I am shocked to hear that Spokane has one of the deadliest police forces in the country, ranking third nationally in the rate of police killings by population. (https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/compare-police-departments)

Our Legislature is discussing bills right now that would stop police forces from buying and using dangerous and costly military equipment, like tanks and shoulder rockets (ESHB 1054). I strongly urge Sen. Jeff Holy and Rep. Mike Volz and Rep. Jenny Graham to support this and other common-sense police accountability bills including HB 1310, HB 1267 and SB 5051.

I am a caregiver for two local young people with autism and this year more than any, they could use these funds to get the additional care that’s out of reach. We have serious needs in Spokane for housing, and people are lined up for the food banks. Our taxes should go to give people hope, rather than oppress and endanger them.

I’ve never seen a militarized police force that didn’t use their weapons. Even if I was never personally harmed, I don’t want to support a community that doesn’t help and keep safe all its members. Spokane has the potential to be exactly what it presents itself to be; and that starts with a police force that is accountable to our community.

Read in the Spokesman-Review

Vicki Bickford, SEIU 775 Caregiver, Letter to the Editor in The Columbian

I’m a long-term caregiver, I’m happy to help everyone in our community by paying taxes and I’ve donated more than ever during this pandemic. At the same time, the ultra-wealthy have profited to an unimaginable level from the pandemic, while paying only a fraction of what we do toward our safety net.

We could have that strong community again if everyone in Washington paid their share in taxes. But right now, our taxes are very unfair, with working people like us paying 17 percent of our income in state and local taxes, while the super wealthy only pay 3 percent. Our state’s upside-down tax system is beyond broken. The poor and middle classes shoulder too much of the burden while the rich ignore all the suffering. 

Our broken tax system started long before the pandemic. We must stop sacrificing people, and the safety net we rely on, so that the wealthy can get wealthier. 

One first step is for our lawmakers, Sen. Annette Cleveland and Reps. Sharon Wylie and Monica Stonier, to support the Senate’s capital gains tax (SB 5096). As a long-term caregiver, I urge everyone to make sure the wealthy pay their share of our recovery.

Read the letter in The Columbian

Montana Legislators,

We will talk about what we lived through in 2020 and 2021 for the rest of our lives. It was a year of incredible heartache and loss and sadness and loneliness.

But that’s not all the year was. It was a year when lawmakers and our residents showed up like never before and lifted up essential workers who were taking care of the people who are most vulnerable to this virus.

At the beginning of this pandemic, people across the country – including many of you – came together to clap for essential frontline workers like caregivers to show your appreciation for the hard work we do to help our communities. While the clapping has stopped, these essential workers are still hard at work.

That’s why we’re asking you: You Clapped. Now Act!

We need Agencies and Provider Rate increases not cuts because cutting long-term care funding in a pandemic is tantamount to neglect. Will you take action to support our frontline workers just like you did last year?

Lori Swartz, Missoula

“The proposed cuts to the senior long term care budget are only going to make the next 2 years even harder.  For my clients, they don’t get much help as it is now, and it would be a devastation if he lost any hours.  For myself, it means that at 62, I would have to look for another job in order to make a living. Please oppose any cuts to the senior long term care budget.”

– Lori Swartz, Missoula, MT

“Support us the way we never fail to support you, your families, and our clients and communities.”

“I’m Lisa Jensen, and I’ve been a caregiver for almost 25 years now here in Montana. I currently work with medically frail clients who need complete care at a group home in Butte. I am writing today to remind you how much we need you to remember all of us always, but especially during this Montana Legislative Session.

I love being a caregiver. Even so, I can tell you for sure that we do not make a fair, living wage for the important work we do. That has never been more true than during this pandemic. Way too many people think things like getting enough PPE, having access to hazard pay, and other things we as caregivers and our clients need is some kind of made-up joke. I am here to tell you it’s not.

We have had several positive Covid cases throughout my job’s network of group homes and other programs for our vulnerable clients all across Montana and also right here in Butte. If there are positive cases in our group homes, the staff there have to go into a two-week quarantine with their coworkers and clients to contain the spread of Covid and do our best do to keep everybody as safe as possible.

Yes. You read that right. Montana caregivers at our group homes quarantine for two weeks. They leave their families, pets, and lives for that long to stay at work 24/7 with clients that are often sick, scared and stressed out. Have you ever quarantined for two weeks at work? We have. And we’ve done it during the financial, health and other stresses of living through a pandemic. No matter what, caregivers ALWAYS show up.

Now, we need – we expect – all of you to show up for us. This isn’t about politics or what party you’re in. This is about the health and safety and lives of Montana caregivers, our families and our clients.

Please remember who you’re in Helena to serve and do the right things.  We need true living wages and access to good healthcare now more than ever. This pandemic has proven just how essential we are. Support us the way we never fail to support you, your families, and our clients and communities.”

– Lisa Jensen, Butte, Montana

Delphine Camarillo, Billings

I need you to fight for our clients so they have the hours for their care and I can keep my job and a roof over my head.  Please oppose any cuts to the senior long term care budget.  We’ve come too far to see our wages roll back now. 

Delphine Camarillo
Billings, MT

“We’re just now recovering from budget cuts in 2017.” 

“Caregiving is a challenging occupation because of the physical, mental and emotional affects that come with the job.  It’s physically hard because we are using our bodies as a physical assistance device in helping our clients with getting out of bed, toileting and any other mobility task.  They are constantly leaning on us for support, or we are lifting them. It’s real easy to do it the wrong way and injuries are common especially as you get older. In my prime, I saw it as great exercise, but after 30 years the body breaks down and you heal a lot slower. One time I tweaked my back in my sleep, and had to use a walker for a month. The work is also mentally and emotionally stressful because we’re constantly afraid of losing hours. Most of us are still living paycheck to paycheck, and some months it feels like we’re just treading water.  I’m doing the work of multiple professional people, but only paid a fraction of what they are worth.

COVID-19 has provided some unique challenges for caregivers. It’s hard for our clients to hear us clearly through our masks, and not being able to see our faces makes some of them uncomfortable. We’re doing it to protect them, but it creates a lot of anxiety because so much of communication is non-verbal.  Sometimes they don’t recognize us, or they forget that we are in the middle of a pandemic and ask why we’re wearing a mask at all.  I’ve lost relatives to COVID-19.  I know the pandemic is real, but many of our clients just do not understand.

At the height of the pandemic, caregivers were praised as heroes, but more often than not we’re treated like we are a dime a dozen.  Please don’t cut the funding for senior and long-term care. We’re just now recovering from budget cuts in 2017. That made life so much more difficult and we lost a lot of good caregivers that couldn’t make ends meet anymore. Budget cuts add stress to an already stressful job. When you cut our budget, it doesn’t decrease the amount of work we have to do, it just means we have less time to do it.”

– Connie Sharp, Glasgow, Montana

Most of our clients are poor and would be on the street if it weren’t for state funding. The budget cuts being proposed could be a matter of life and death for many of our clients. 

In 2017, we faced severe cuts to our funding, and we just got that funding back in 2019.  To turn around two years later and strip funding again is cruel and unfair.  We work hard and live simply.  Don’t take away our livelihood.  

Celeste Thompson
Missoula, MT

“Budget cuts to a healthcare system already underfunded just cannot happen.”

“I love being a caregiver. It’s who I am and the work I want to do. I strongly believe there cannot be any higher calling than upholding the dignity of our most vulnerable folks.

Over the last year, continuing to work through the pandemic has been an experience I had hoped to never have as a caregiver. My job is always stressful, sure. I often work 70-80 hours every week, not only because I care so much about my clients, but also just to try to make a living. Caregivers never make enough. Especially with the important, complex and challenging work we do. That is always true. That truth has never been more obvious than during the pandemic.

Even so, we all just keep showing up. Every day. No matter what. In fact, I was pretty sick this fall and my doctors were pretty sure it was Covid. I had a lot of the usual symptoms. The stress of having to face that was tremendous. First, I don’t have very good health insurance so going to the doctor is always a tough choice financially. But we are in the middle of a pandemic, so not knowing whether I had a virus that could kill me, my coworkers, or my clients, I had to go, figure out how to pay the deductibles and the copays, and find out. I even had to advocate strongly to even get access to a Covid test, since our healthcare system in Montana has struggled to keep enough PPE, testing and other necessary supplies available. I was very lucky. My test was negative. Thousands and thousands of other Montanans can’t say the same.

Budget cuts and other policy changes to a healthcare system already underfunded just cannot happen. I need you to remember me, other Montana caregivers, and our clients when you make these decisions.

Thank you for your time and consideration. Do not forget us.”

– Winter Maulding, Butte, Montana

We need more funding, not less. We need hazard pay through all of the pandemic, and we need and deserve higher, living wages after that. Do not forget about us. Me and my coworkers are taking care of your family members here in Libby. We deserve your help in taking care of our families, too.

Sharon Smith
Libby, MT

“I’ll lose hours one week, then get them back, only to lose them again the following week.” 

“I’ve worked at nursing homes, in hospitals, and have been a caregiver in one former or another for 38 years. Basically, I go into people’s homes and help them with all the little things they need to live – bathing, cooking, house cleaning, laundry, oral care, and shopping.  If you’ve never done this work, it’s not for the lazy or the faint of heart.

The biggest impact from the pandemic has been the loss of hours.  It’s been a constant battle back and forth as clients are in and out of the hospital, or just afraid of having someone in their homes. I’ll lose hours one week, then get them back, only to lose them again the following week.  You never know what to expect.  I lost my health insurance over it at the end of last year. 

It’s also hard on the people we care for because they are so limited in what they can do.  It makes them mad.  They don’t understand why we can’t just go to the park or the store like we’ve always done.  It’s times like these that our work is even more important. We are their connection to the outside world.   

I don’t know where the world is going these days.  I try to have faith that things will work out, but it’s a struggle to stay positive.  What keeps me going is the difference I make to my clients. I love helping people and bringing joy into their lives.  Everyone deserves that, and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.  I hope you will support this resolution and give all healthcare workers the respect that we have earned.”

– Audra Gairrett, Billings, Montana

When people think of front-line healthcare workers they usually think about doctors and nurses, but homecare workers are on the frontlines too. Every day, we work to keep our clients in their homes and out of the hospitals and nursing homes.  Without our work, the healthcare system would be overwhelmed and conditions would be much worse right now.

In spite of our sacrifice, caregivers are some of the lowest-paid workers in our community.  Our work happens behind closed doors, and we feel practically invisible.

Winnie Schafer
Wolf Point, MT

During the overnight shift at a Bellingham nursing home, residents have started dropping by the nurses station again.

Some are in pain from a recent procedure, or “sundowning,” a common symptom of dementia marked by confusion and restlessness as night falls. Others are night owls, or anxious from not seeing family members for so long. Still more stop by for no reason at all — everyone eventually has a sleepless night.

Shelly Hughes, a certified nursing assistant at North Cascades Health and Rehab, has vitals to take and supply closets to stock. But she is happy to see people start to come out from their rooms. She must guide them back — but this is progress. For nearly a year, the station has been quiet, as COVID-19 shuttered so much of life inside the facility and out.

Nursing homes have absorbed so many of the cruel blows of the pandemic. Long-term care facilities, which include nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and adult family homes, account for half the state’s now-almost 5,000 deaths, since the very first outbreaks in the U.S., in the Seattle area. Those rightly stoked fears about the virulent spread of the new disease and the vulnerability of so many seniors, often frail, living so close together.

“A year ago, being at work, it was scary and you never knew what you were coming into,” Hughes said. “You came in, and thought ‘OK, is this the day I find out we have an outbreak? Am I going to show up and be the only person here?’”

Read more at The Seattle Times

OpEd by Gerry Knight, Veteran, covid-19 survivor, and retired caregiver. He lives in Black Eagle with his wife.  

Great Falls, MT — Senator (Jon) Tester and I go way back – I know he understands that wages for working people is the same as weather for a farmer. Lousy income is like lousy weather, and without a sustainable $15-hour minimum wage, Montanans are in a lousy situation.  

My wife and I moved with the Air Force to Montana in 1988. In 1992 we relocated to Black Eagle because it’s a peaceable, comfortable community where we are treated more as a friend than a stranger. It’s a place where we care about each other– because just like in the military when one member is having a hard time, we are here to support each other. 

For many years, I worked as an in-home caregiver, as have both my wife and daughter.  Late this past year I came down with COVID.  Caregivers like me across the state put ourselves at risk to keep vulnerable Montanans safe in their own homes.   Yet too many of us still make under $15 – it’s not right.  

My wife still works, and like most people in our community, she only makes approximately $10 an hour. I worry about people in my community who are merely existing at these wages, juggling bills with nothing to fall back on, rather than thriving.  Having a more sustainable wage of $15 an hour would help tremendously. It is about getting by, not getting ahead. 

I am thankful that Senator Tester has always had a big heart for veterans and that he was able to establish the Veteran Support Center in Great Falls. A lot of veterans live in our community and I’ve been going there for assistance periodically.  

 A $15 an hour minimum wage would help Veterans and everyday Montanans. In 2017, the Economic Policy Institute estimated that 1 in 5 veterans nationally would also benefit from a higher minimum wage.  

Senator Tester has an opportunity to help not just caregivers and Veterans, but so many families in Montana by supporting a $15 an hour minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage could mean an average of $233 more a month for affected workers in Montana, according to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute. This wouldn’t put money in the bank, but it would lower our stress if we had a little bit to fall back on. If we need repairs to our home or truck, we could meet the challenge.  

As a former small business owner, I believe this would be good for business. With a higher wage, employees are more apt to stay on the job, with more devotion to the company as a higher quality employee. The Economic Policy Institute report also shows that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would help 25% of 25–54-year-old workers and 23% of workers over 55 in Montana. This would be a boon to all Montana workers, not just recent high school graduates working entry-level jobs. With these wages folks are more apt to go out to do things, like enjoy a meal at a local restaurant. That in turn helps those local, small businesses. Families could purchase higher quality groceries at the local store rather than fast food that is cheap and bad for your heart. Flourishment is what I call it.  

A sustainable $15-hour minimum wage is the right thing to do for caregivers and other essential workers keeping us safe in the pandemic.  It’s the right thing to do for Veterans that sacrificed for our country.  It’s the right thing to do for Montana’s economy.  It is the soil from which a community grows, allowing us to weather storms when they happen and grow during the good times.