We Want Women's Work to Have Equal Value - Women's Foundation California
“This profession needs to be valued like we value the tech industry. Tech cannot get elderly people out of bed and feed them," said Sabrina Johnson. Here she is (on the left, wearing a white blazer and a dress) with her colleagues.
“This profession needs to be valued like we value the tech industry. Tech cannot get elderly people out of bed and feed them,” said Sabrina Johnson (on the left, in a white blazer). She’s with Homebridge colleagues and home care workers.

If you ever doubted one person could make a difference, meet Sabrina Johnson. The 28-year-old work-life coach at Homebridge, a nonprofit home care provider in San Francisco, managed to transform the organization and its predominantly low-income female workforce.

Johnson plays a unique role: Part therapist, part social worker and part data scientist, she helps women transition into roles as home care providers—and thrive.

It’s difficult to thrive in this type of environment—home care work is taxing and the pay is low. As a matter of fact, before Johnson was hired, fewer than half of Homebridge’s home care providers stayed in their jobs past six months. But in less than a year, Johnson increased that rate to 65 percent. And with more changes in the pipeline, Johnson expects the retention rate to keep going up.

“Sabrina’s role is critical,” said Krista Blyth-Gaeta, chief program officer at Homebridge. “Her ability to connect with the workers, to build rapport, to show they have someone on their side—it goes a long way.”

Johnson’s secret is simple. She pays attention to the unique needs of Homebridge’s low-income women workers and communicates them to the nonprofit management, who are then able to improve workplace conditions and practices and improve women’s experiences and job satisfaction.

[quote_center]To Johnson, home care workers are not just hands doing the work of lifting, bathing and feeding; they’re flesh and blood women who are struggling to make a living while navigating single parenting, poverty, food insecurity, unprocessed emotional trauma, domestic violence or homelessness. [/quote_center]

Trained as a therapist, Johnson re-shaped her role to address real-time, day-to-day challenges home care workers face. She helps fill out applications for food stamps, subsidized childcare, healthcare and other programs. She helps figure out the fastest bus routes to and from work and in between jobs. She sits with the women as they look for housing on Craigslist. And she brainstorms with them on their short- and long-term life goals.

Johnson and Homebridge are doing something visionary for their women workers and the hope is that other home care employers in California will follow suit. They are addressing the distinctive needs of low-income women, in particular women of color, who are doing the important work of caring. Without investing in and supporting these workers—in addition to raising their wages—we are bound to create even greater and intractable inequality in our state.

Undervalued and Underpaid

Home care work is both physically and emotionally challenging. The workers’ schedules are often unpredictable. There is little opportunity for career advancement and turnover is high.

“I am still shocked at how undervalued this work is,” said Johnson. “I don’t think people really understand the level of care these workers are providing.”

Additionally, the workers are often underpaid. The ACLU reports nationwide, nearly one-quarter of home care workers live below the poverty line and over half live in households under 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Home care workers in the Bay Area are at an even greater disadvantage, because the cost of living is extremely high.

Homebridge’s home care workers earn only $12.25 per hour—equivalent to San Francisco’s minimum wage. The County sets that rate, which Homebridge can’t change. In many cases, these wages aren’t enough to cover the basic costs of housing, food and transportation. Many workers are single mothers struggling to make ends meet: Childcare in the Bay Area takes up more than 40 percent of their monthly wages.

[quote_center]“We talk about budgeting and managing the funds they have,” Johnson said. “But if you’re making $2,000 a month in San Francisco, budgeting really looks like basic necessities.”[/quote_center]

But home care work requires skill and has great social value. Homebridge workers clean, cook and attend to elderly and disabled people in San Francisco, making it possible for thousands to live in their own homes. Workers need patience to support clients who may be cranky and demanding, mentally ill or living in spaces that are unclean. They have to be extremely empathetic to care for elderly people approaching the end of life, and have technical skills to work with clients with special medical needs.

What’s more, the demand for qualified and capable home care workers is expected to rise. Analysts say home care is one of the fastest growing professions in the U.S. due to a rapidly increasing elderly population. Within the next 20 years, one in five Americans will be 65 or older, and 11.5 million will be 85 or older. It’s estimated that over the coming decade, one million new jobs will be created in home care.

Prioritizing the Needs of the Workers

The simplest way to support their employees would have been to raise salaries, but Homebridge wasn’t in a position to do so because workers’ salaries are tied to state-wide negotiated rates. To help their employees, Homebridge applied for a grant with the Women’s Foundation of California to hire Johnson.

Through rigorous data keeping and deep listening, Johnson has already transformed the way Homebridge manages its home care workers—and hers is a great model for other employers. Johnson realized this was the first job for nearly one quarter of the women. Many felt isolated and needed more support. They were overwhelmed and struggled to balance their work and personal lives.

She approached Homebridge’s management team and together they decided that they needed to support their workers better. They hired additional schedulers in order to free the supervisors’ time to focus on guiding workers in the field, giving them one-on-one support, training them in new skills and helping build their confidence.

Because of Johnson's work, Homebridge now has schedulers as well as supervisors, meaning that home care workers can get one-on-one support and guidance from their managers. That extra support is helping them thrive.
Homebridge now has schedulers as well as supervisors, meaning that home care workers can get one-on-one support and guidance not just shifts and schedules. That extra personal and emotional support is improving their workplace experience.

[quote_center]Ultimately, the women who take care of our elderly and disabled also needed to be cared for, seen and acknowledged. Having supervisors who care for them, their growth and their development is a big step forward in recognizing and valuing their work.[/quote_center]

The women workers now feel more satisfied and are staying employed. But Johnson is not satisfied. Her next step is to help workers bargain for higher wages and subsidize expensive transportation costs: A two-hour commute is no longer unusual among workers due to the exorbitant rent in San Francisco.

“This profession needs to be valued like we value the tech industry,” Johnson said. “Tech cannot get elderly people out of bed and feed them.”

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