Alameda County IHSS caretaker Allen Whitfield (left) sits next to his mother, Charlene Smith (left), who is also his caretaking client, in her apartment complex in Union City. Whitfield and other caretakers in the SEIU 2015 union are preparing to ask for a $20 wage and expanded access to healthcare in their new contract. (Zack Haber)

SEIU 2015, the union that represents the over 21,000 caretakers who work for Alameda County’s In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS), will be starting negotiations for a new contract early next year that they hope will ensure a 20-dollar-an-hour wage and improved access to healthcare for its members.

“Alameda is one of the most expensive places to live in the Bay Area,” said Lupe Martinez, who is SEIU 2015’s chief negotiator. “In order to provide their essential services, our members need to be able to have the proper wages to live here.”

SEIU 2015 sees their proposed wage increase as a way of reducing the wage gap across gender and racial lines. Across California, 81% of IHSS caretakers are women and 74% are people of color.

IHSS caretakers support those who are disabled or over 65 years old, and who are also unable to live at home safely without help. Typical duties include cooking, cleaning, giving out medications, helping with grocery shopping and showering, and taking clients to doctor’s appointments.

“People do in-home care work because they love the people,” said Allen Whitfield, a lifelong Oakland resident who’s now in his 60s and works as a caretaker for two clients. “It’s definitely not for the pay.

Currently, Alameda County IHSS caretakers make an hourly wage of $15.75. Starting next year, their wage will increase to $16.75. The union plans to ask for a contract that allows all its members to make at least 20 dollars an hour by 2024. They’ve been circulating a petition, which almost 12,000 people have signed so far, calling for all California caretakers to get this wage increase.

Whitfield likes his job, and says he’s “all for being there for people who need help, especially the underdog.” With the current rate of pay, though, he can’t afford to rent his own apartment. Even renting a room in a house with roommates is so expensive that he often has to do odd jobs over the weekend to pay his bills. He regularly gets opportunities for steady work in other places for a higher salary, but he doesn’t take the work for one key reason.

“The only reason I don’t take other work,” Whitfield said. “Is that it would get in the way of taking care of my mom.”

Like many, but not all, IHSS caretakers, Whitfield’s clients are family members. In addition to caring for his mother, one of his distant relatives is also a client. Although on paper Whitfield works a little under 30 hours a week, he says he spends well over 40 hours a week caring for his mother and his distant relative.

According to Lupe Martinez, Whitfield’s experience is common among IHSS workers. She says that many clients’ need for care often far exceeds the amount of hours that the county allots them to hire a paid caretaker. As a result, many caretakers, and not just those who work for family members, work extra hours off the books because they want to be there for their clients who often have no one else to turn to.

“If you see someone badly in need of care services,” she said. “You’re going to want to help them.”

“It’s an endless job because most of the time [clients] need more care than the hours provided,” said Whitfield.

The extra unpaid work sometimes makes the job unsustainable. In the mid 2010s, Whitfield had another client who was blind and needed a lot of extra care. But Whitfield couldn’t get enough on the book hours to afford to be able to keep him as a client. The blind man has a new caretaker now, and he keeps in touch with Whitfield as a friend by calling him occasionally. While looking back on the forced separation, Whitfield described it as “kind of heartbreaking.”

Partly due to the reality that caretakers work off-the-book hours, SEIU 2015 wants to change how the county provides healthcare for themselves. The county currently requires that all IHSS caretakers have at least 80 on the book hours per month to qualify for healthcare benefits. According to Martinez, many caretakers work well over 80 hours a month, but don’t receive healthcare, because much of those hours are off the books. As a result, many caretakers are effectively working a full-time job with no healthcare benefits. To help with this problem, SEIU 2015 wants a contract that would lower the minimum hours caretakers would need to work per month to qualify for such benefits.

This reporter called the Alameda County’s Administration Office and emailed that office detailed questions about how IHSS hours are allocated to clients and if the county plans to expand healthcare coverage and/or provide a 20-dollar-an-hour wage in the new contract, but was met with no response.

Although Whitfield is committed to taking care of his clients, he feels the wage he makes from the county as a caretaker, as well as the lack of appropriate hours, is unfair and that the low pay “keeps people in poverty.”

“We just don’t get paid enough for the job that we do and the care that’s needed,” he said. “I don’t think we’re valued at all.”

This article originally appeared on the author’s Medium account, in the Oakland Post, and on the Post News Group’s website. 

Zack Haber is a poet and journalist who lives in West Oakland.