The Massachusetts Senate begins debate Wednesday on amendments to a $36 billion state budget. One of the countless amendments filed would increase wages for home care aides. Those are the folks who care for the elderly or disabled, allowing them to remain in their own homes.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds home health aide and personal care aide are two of the fastest growing occupations in the country. The need for both is expected to grow by nearly 50 percent over the next decade. But the median annual wages for both professions are below the poverty level for a family of four.
'Part Of The Family'
One woman trying to make that math work is Francia Fortuna, a single mom with two kids.
Four days a week for four years, Fortuna has helped Natale DeMarco — showering him, changing his bedsheets, even making his morning espresso.
"I have no family in this country, so you feel like you're working with a family," she said. "You like these people, you love these people, like they're part of the family."
DeMarco said the feeling is mutual. He's divorced and his kids live in another city, so most days he's on his own. He has a bad back, heart problems and high blood pressure.
"I got everything, you name it," he said. "[I'm] takin' 22 pills a day, can you imagine?"
An Italian satellite channel hums from the TV in DeMarco's bedroom as Fortuna helps him get dressed and makes his bed.
"You know, it's a hard job," he said. "They do everything. Without them, we'd be in the cemetery."
Fortuna makes $10.42 an hour. The hours are irregular, but she said she tries to work as much as possible.
"I'm a single mother, so the more hours I work, really, honestly, the more money I make," she said. "That's what I need: money for the kids, the house."
Fortuna works with different clients around East Boston six days a week, but she said her pay is so poor, she's on food stamps too.
"I worry about it because sometimes I go short with my bills," she said. "I cannot pay on time, honest to God."
About 40 percent of workers are on some of form of public assistance, said Lisa Gurgone, the director of the Home Care Aide Council, a trade association for all the home care agencies in the state.
"One of the things we see is that a lot of people who work in this field don't stay because the wage is so low," she said. "And we hear from aides time and time again that they love the work, they love working with clients, but they can't support their families on the wage."
Home care aides in Massachusetts make $11.56 an hour on average, which is higher than the state's current minimum wage.
But the yearly take-home pay for most home care aides is at poverty level. Gurgone said that's because they work a few hours at a time for different clients, piecing together a salary. In a year, that adds up to less than $16,000 on average.
"If you look at the national data, most home care aides are single moms, a lot of them are minorities, and they're really struggling to make ends meet," Gurgone said.
She said they haven't had a proper pay raise since 2008. But she's found a supporter in the State House: Sen. Pat Jehlen of Somerville.
'Hopeful, But Not Confident'
"These are people who provide a really, really important service for very vulnerable people and they're not paid enough to support their families," Jehlen said.
Jehlen has filed an amendment to the budget that would increase wages for 17,000 home care aides by approximately $0.75 an hour. In total, it would cost $6.1 million.
Jehlen said she imagines her colleagues will support higher wages in theory, "but there are many important competing demands for the amount of money we have, so I'm hopeful, but not confident."
As for Fortuna, she said she's thought of trying to find a job that would pay more money, but she's conflicted. She loves the work.
"What am I going to do the day I don't see Mr. DeMarco?" she asked. "I know he's going to miss me. And [I'm] gonna miss [him] because you feel like part of the family."
And that makes it easier for her to worry less about money, at least while she's keeping other folks company.
This segment aired on May 21, 2014.