LAS VEGAS—In one of the biggest organizing drives in recent history, more than 1,000 Nevada homecare workers have already voted or are taking part in landslide union elections at multiple employers. Workers said they are forming their union to advocate for good jobs and quality care so the rapidly-aging population and people with disabilities get the services they urgently need. The series of elections have occurred since March of this year, with margins up to 95% in favor of joining SEIU Local 1107. Hundreds more workers will be heading toward elections in coming months.
The explosion of organizing echoes a national trend in which 67% of Americans now approve of labor unions, at a time when the middle class is shrinking and workers are struggling with severe inequality, inflation and global economic changes. Tens of thousands of workers—including at corporate giants such as Starbucks, UPS and Amazon—have been standing up and demanding better pay, benefits and working conditions.
The organizing drive comes on the heels of 13,000 Nevada homecare workers winning a historic $16 minimum wage and 42% funding increase in the state legislature. The increases are urgently needed as homecare wages have stagnated at around $11 an hour for more than a decade and funding has remained basically unchanged for 20 years. With increased state funding now available, newly unionized workers are aiming to negotiate with employers to set consistent standards for jobs and care across the entire industry.
“I care for a wonderful woman in her 80s and every day she tells me how much she needs and appreciates me,” said Debra Loving, a Las Vegas homecare worker who recently voted to join the union. “Despite my 20 years of experience and dedication, I only get paid $11.50 an hour, I have to rely on Medicaid for my health care, and don’t have any paid time off. Sometimes I have to pay almost $400 for my electric bill and it eats up most of my income. My financial situation is absolutely miserable and the stress it causes me is chronic. I’m 69 years old and don’t have any retirement savings. I often used to worry that I was going to have to work until I die. But since we formed our union and won the $16 minimum wage, I now have a sense of dignity and hope, and feel my burden starting to ease. We’re going to keep fighting for higher job standards that support, attract and keep homecare workers, because without us, our clients would be lost.”
Homecare workers help with all the daily activities that enable seniors and people with disabilities to live at home with health and well-being. Duties include bathing, feeding, taking clients to doctors appointments, grocery shopping, picking up prescriptions and medication reminders. In-home caregivers—who are 85% women and 59% people of color—support their clients in every area of the state, both rural and urban.
A “Silver Tsunami” has been crashing over Nevada as the state’s older population grows much faster than the rest of the country. There are currently more than 438,000 Nevadans over the age of 65, and because the vast majority would strongly prefer to live at home, demand for services has been skyrocketing.
But families increasingly cannot find caregivers for their loved ones due to severe difficulties with recruitment and retention of workers. This crisis-level workforce shortage has been caused by poverty pay, a lack of basic benefits, the lingering impact of the pandemic and rising compensation in other industries. A research report by the nonpartisan Guinn Center found that one out of two homecare workers leave their jobs in the first year, and Nevada will need 5,300 additional personal care aides by 2026.
These problems spurred homecare workers to start organizing their union several years ago. Caregivers began mobilizing throughout the state, speaking out powerfully in the press and on social media, and generating support among community allies. In 2021, workers advocated effectively to pass state Senate Bill 340, which established a first-in-the nation Home Care Employment Standards Board. Workers pushed the Standards Board to pass a set of policy recommendations, including the minimum wage and funding increase. Then, workers again directly lobbied their legislators to pass those recommendations as part of the most recent state budget, which was signed into law by Governor Joe Lombardo.
The budget increases the minimum wage for workers to $16 and the “Medicaid Reimbursement rate”—the funding that homecare employers receive for providing services—from $17.56 to $25 an hour. Most homecare services in the state are delivered by private agencies funded through Medicaid.
The $16 will be life changing, but caregivers said much more has to be done to recruit and retain the workforce needed to meet demand. Workers hope that this successful organizing strategy serves as inspiration and a model for others fighting for living wages throughout the entire U.S.
“I only make $12 an hour and with the cost of everything going up, it’s a daily struggle to raise my 4 year-old and 18 year-old kids,” said Alisha Harrell, a homecare worker in Las Vegas. “I have to work a second job as a rideshare driver just to survive. I voted a resounding yes because our union is about all of us collectively fighting for our rights and the compassionate care our clients deserve.”