Women in the home health care industry: Jobs are plentiful, but the working conditions stink.

The Jobs Recovery Has Been Great for Women Who Like Low Wages and Abysmal Working Conditions

The Jobs Recovery Has Been Great for Women Who Like Low Wages and Abysmal Working Conditions

What women really think.
Dec. 17 2014 3:07 PM

Women’s Work

The jobs recovery was supposed to be great for women. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.

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Home health aides are increasingly in demand, but pay and working conditions leave something to be desired.

Photo by Shutterstock

After dropping off her son at school, Jasmin Almodovar drives to the house of the first of four ailing and aging clients she sees each day as a home health care worker.* Roy was one of these clients for six years. He was in his 80s and had dementia. Every morning Almodovar would lift Roy out of bed, bathe him, shave his face, and dress him in slacks and a button-down. “To the nines,” she said. “He always looked good.” As she does for most of her clients, Almodovar cooked meals for Roy, took him to the doctor, and tended to his increasingly demanding needs as his condition deteriorated. She was also with him in the hours before he died. “It’s an emotional job. It’s also real physical work,” she said. When Almodovar, who lives in Cleveland, Ohio, gets home, around 9 p.m., sometimes later, her son is already asleep and she’s exhausted. But, she said, she’s happy to have work.

Jasmin Almodovar is the face of the women’s jobs recovery. She works in the fastest-growing occupation in the largest job category for women: education and health services. With so many aging boomers, demand for home health aides is expected to skyrocket. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an expansion of 48 percent between 2012 and 2022. New positions primarily in service occupations have allowed women to regain more jobs than they lost during the recession—and more than men have reclaimed. In the past few years, stories taking note of this new gender divide have peppered the media with headlines like “Women Reach Milestone in Job Market” from the Wall Street Journal and “It’s Women on Top in Jobs Recovery” from the New York Post.

But a closer look reveals that the bounty of new jobs isn’t such a triumph for women. Take Almodovar. The 35-year-old single mother earns just $9.50 an hour. (Minimum wage in Ohio is $7.95 and will rise to $8.10 on Jan. 1.) After more than a decade on the job, she has inched her way up from $7.85 an hour but hasn’t had a raise in four years. Home health workers earn a median wage of less than $21,000 a year. That’s well below the median annual wage across all occupations, which is almost $35,000, and just above the federal poverty line for a family of three. Similarly low wages are common in other growing job sectors that employ mostly women, including retail and food service. Also common to low-wage, mostly female work: long hours, unpredictable schedules, and no sick days or benefits. As Sarah Leberstein, a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, said, “All these new jobs show there’s a real need for workers and there are some bright spots as far as job creation, especially in female-dominated sectors—but not for job quality.” Almodovar’s story is emblematic of the women’s jobs recovery—while work is plentiful, the pay and working conditions are often abysmal.

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The most troubling aspect of Almodovar’s job is the nine to 12 hours of work she isn’t paid for each week. The time it takes Almodovar to drive from house to house between clients is off the clock, even though the travel is for work. She averages 1½ hours in the car on each of the six days a week she works, and that adds up fast. Almodovar can lose up to $456 a month.

There are other ways Almodovar misses out on pay. If she’s sick and has to stay home, she’s not covered. If a client suddenly must be hospitalized, she’s out those shifts. If a client goes to a nursing home or dies, the company she works for doesn’t guarantee her another client right away, and she isn’t paid without one. And despite working 60 hours a week at times, in her 11 years as a home health care worker, Almodovar has never been paid overtime. (Federal lawmakers have exempted home-based caregivers from many protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act. However, the Department of Labor recently ordered these workers included; the new regulations go into effect in mid-2015.)

Almodovar, a single mother, is compensated for 47 hours a week and earns about $22,000 a year before taxes. That barely covers her bills: her share of the rent is $320—a few years ago she took in a friend, a single mother with four kids, as a roommate to cut costs—plus her cellphone, food, cable, and utilities combined with clothes, school, and sports supplies for her 12-year-old son, Cortez. Because of the Affordable Care Act, Almodovar has just signed up for the first health insurance she’s had in years. But the $80 a month she’ll pay strains her pocketbook for what doesn’t seem like real coverage. She could only afford a skimpy policy with high copayments and a steep deductible. “I can’t pay $50 to go see the doctor,” she said. She will only use it, she said, if there’s a catastrophic emergency.

To get health coverage, many low-wage workers shave their hours just enough to qualify for Medicaid. But Almodovar can’t afford to. “Food stamps, Medicaid—that’s not going to pay for gas. If something goes wrong with my truck, I can’t give the mechanic my food stamp card,” she said.

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In today’s labor market there are what seem like conflicting developments for female workers. Gender inequality has declined—women have more access to jobs and more women have advanced degrees than ever before—but in many cases this is because pay, benefits, and working conditions have gotten worse across the board, including for men.

“Women’s gains are happening in a period when the labor market has deteriorated,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociology and labor studies professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. “Gender inequality has lessened but overall inequality”—between rich and poor—“has increased dramatically.” Milkman pointed out that income polarization isn’t a new development, but rather one of the deindustrialization, deunionization, and deregulation that reaches back to the 1970s. “This is a long-term trend but it was accelerated by the recession,” she said.

Even still, according to the National Women’s Law Center, women in low-paid jobs suffer a wage gap of 13 percent compared to men in these same positions.

Not surprisingly, the long hours, tough conditions, and small paychecks affect many aspects of life. “I don’t see my son a lot,” said Almodovar. “I’ve missed basketball games, football, awards ceremonies, performances.” During the week they spend just one or two hours together a day. Most often he’s asleep when she gets home. Sunday is their only real time (Almodovar works on Saturdays), which they spend at home or the park, doing activities that don’t cost money. They have a big family meal on Sunday night—“It’s like Thanksgiving,” Almodovar said—because she finally has time to cook. Cortez is forgiving but often tells his mom he wishes she didn’t work so much. He says it’s not fair. “I give my clients more time than my own family,” Almodovar said. “That hurts.”

For the post-recession jobs gains to be a real recovery for women like Almodovar, it will take more than high numbers of hires. “We often hear politicians talk about the great need to add jobs back,” said Leberstein, the employment lawyer. “But we haven’t paid enough attention or put enough pressure on companies to make sure the jobs they’re creating are good enough.”

Pressure, in legislative terms, means establishing new labor standards, including “fair scheduling laws so employers would have to give employees their schedules ahead of time,” said Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the National Women’s Law Center, plus guarantees of minimum hours if a worker is on call.

Almodovar, who has joined the Fight of $15, a campaign run by the Service Employees International Union to agitate for a higher hourly rate for low-wage workers in the service sector, hopes change is imminent. “As it is now,” she said, “I’ve worked all week, I’ve paid my bills but there’s no fallback money, there is no what-if money, no emergency money. In my employer’s eyes I’m making enough, but me, I’m struggling every week.”

*Correction, Dec. 20, 2014: This piece originally misspelled Jasmin Almodovar's first name. (Return.)

Heather Rogers is a journalist and author who has written for ProPublica, the New York Times Magazine, and Mother Jones. Her most recent book, Green Gone Wrong, explores the contradictions of green consumerism.