We're joining hundreds of people with disabilities who plan to rally at the Capitol tomorrow, Feb. 20, to urge lawmakers to preserve their dignity and protect and invest in our state’s cost-effective home care program.

For many people with disabilities who receive home care, the ongoing state budget crisis brings the fear that they could be forced to live in institutions. People—including the clients we serve as home care aides—are able to remain in their homes thanks to Washington’s nationally recognized home care system. Home care aides are the backbone of this front-line health care delivery system, yet we work for meager wages—earning, on average, just more than $10 an hour.

Supporting vulnerable people is our career. We take pride in making sure the people we work with live with dignity. Many need help getting up, bathing and going to the toilet. We cook meals, do laundry and help these individuals  take their prescriptions and navigate our health care system.

Yet two out of three home care aides in Washington currently live near or below federal poverty thresholds. That’s not right.

In 2011, desperate to find savings in the state budget, then-governor Chris Gregoire ordered the state Department of Social and Human Services to slash the number of hours allotted to people like our clients. Instead of using medical need to determine how much care a person should receive, the state turned to an arbitrary calculus that cut hours by an average of 10 percent. It was a desperate move that has led to human desperation.

We’ve also faced a wage freeze since 2008, which has made it harder for workers like us to keep working in the home care system. 

Falls, profound declines in health, even hastened death may be the result of reduced hours and the worker recruitment and retention crisis caused by poverty wages. The effort to save money has cost untallied amounts in human suffering and avoidable hospital stays.

This year, the legislature will consider giving home care aides our first pay raise in more than five years.  Far from extraordinary, the raise is just $.50 a year for two years. If this modest raise is approved, most caregivers can expect to earn close to $11/hour. Investing in the home care aide workforce will help improve worker recruitment and retention, improves quality and pumps dollars into local economies. It’s common sense.

In addition, the legislature is considering changes to the law that would re-establish assessed need as the priority when determining the allotment of caregiver hours. By eliminating the out-of-state sales tax exemption, the state could again afford to allow a person’s health to determine the amount of health care they receive.

Lawmakers may be able to look away from the hundreds of people with disabilities who will rally today outside the Capitol. They cannot deny the daily reality these citizens must face. Or the fact that our senior population is expected to double in the coming decade.

To best care for the most vulnerable, the Legislature must fund the home care aide contract and restore caregiver hours.

Sherry Hunter of Renton and Pamla McCarty of Centralia are home care aides with SEIU Healthcare 775NW.