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Homecare Workers Fight for Funding

news_IHSSWage reductions may threaten vulnerable clients

One of Julee Costanza’s clients says she would rather be back on the streets than in an assisted living facility.

“She lives in a small one-room apartment now, but she was homeless for a period of time,” explains Costanza, a Santa Cruz-based homecare worker.  “Even though she might not make it on the streets, she keeps saying she would rather go that route than move into a nursing home.”

It’s possible that if state budget changes are approved, 2,000 disabled Santa Cruz residents will loose their homecare workers—domestic aids that clean, give baths, and make sure pills are taken at the right time within the comforts of the client’s home. In the 2010 budget, Gov. Schwarzenegger altered enrollment criteria for In Home Support Services (IHSS), a program that allows low-income elders and disabled patients to remain in their own homes with assistance. Of the 2,500 Santa Cruz patients currently enrolled, less than 200 will qualify if physical ability criteria change, says Francie Newfield, division director for Adult and Long Term Care at the Santa Cruz County Human Services Department.

Some clients will not be able to remain independent due to the cuts. “This is short sighted because study after study has shown you save a lot more money keeping people in their homes,” says First District County Supervisor John Leopold. Nursing homes are more expensive, and there may not be enough spots available for a wave of new clients.

Program cuts would also leave a chunk of Santa Cruz’s 1,800 homecare workers unemployed, and those that keep their jobs will face a pay cut. Costanza currently makes $11.50 an hour, but will earn minimum wage if the 2010 budget cuts are passed. Wage cuts will especially impact coastal counties like Santa Cruz, as workers are currently paid more due to the cost of living. Minimum wage is already the norm for homecare workers in most other counties.

“I love connecting with my patients, but I have to eat,” says Costanza. “I do cooking, grooming, baths and I and monitor and distribute medication—I do everything but walk in their shoes.” In some cases nurses are paid $40 an hour for the same kind of work, she adds.

The governor’s office cites fraud and fiscal crisis as the basis for the cuts. Last year awards were offered to help counties root out IHSS fraud, including overstated needs, elder abuse, and unreported deaths. About 40 percent of Santa Cruz homecare workers are related to their patient—this number jumps to 60 percent at the state-level, creating opportunities for misrepresentation of the hours worked and the actual services provided.

“Last year’s changes resulted in a 10 percent savings in the IHSS budget by reducing fraud,” says Rachel Arrezola, a spokesperson for the governor’s office.

Leopold says fraud has not been a local problem. “We have looked for fraud—we have done research, and it isn’t a major issue,” he says. Local homecare workers include the parents of developmentally disabled minors, and adult children with a chronically ill parent. In some cases the program allows children with complex needs to stay with their families, and helps elders pass away in privacy.

However, the county’s own stake in the issue is not without controversy. While the federal government covers about 50 percent of program costs, the county and state cover the remainder. If the state cuts homecare funding, counties will also have the option of lowering matching contributions.

Alameda County recently agreed to maintain the same dollar amount approved in prior local budgets, regardless of state cuts. Similar negotiations in Santa Cruz are stalling, says Scott Mann, spokesperson for United Long Term Care Workers (ULTCW), a Los Angeles-based union that represents homecare workers. “We are in mediation with Santa Cruz County over the length of our IHSS union contract,” says Mann, “and to my knowledge they have not yet formally committed to maintain full contributions into future budget cycles.” The county’s contract with local IHSS workers expired last August.

Newfield did not comment on the county’s plans. “We are negotiating this right now, so I can’t say yes or no,” she said. But according to Supervisor Leopold, the county remains supportive. “We have not talked about cutting wages on the county side of things, and we have advocated for the state to maintain full wages,” he says.

The ULTCW filed suit in response to wage reductions included in the governor’s 2009 budget. An injunction barring wage reductions was awarded last July, and the state appealed. The Ninth District Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case on Jan. 19 in Pasadena. Mann says the union anxiously awaits the Court’s decision, but will continue to fight against cuts. The legislature will vote on the 2010 budgets in June.

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