Arnulfo De La Cruz (Courtesy photo)

 As we approach Labor Day and mark the 60th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and March on Washington, it’s imperative that we pause to reflect on the vital contributions of essential workers, predominantly women of color, who have been the backbone of our society during some of the most challenging times in recent memory. The Covid-19 pandemic laid bare the undeniable truth that overlooked and underpaid workers—such as care providers, nurses, food delivery and UPS workers, among others—are the lifeblood of our communities, yet they are continuously underappreciated and underpaid.

I proudly serve as the President of SEIU 2015—the nation’s largest long-term care union which represents nearly 450,000 long-term care workers (home care, skilled nursing facility, and private agency) throughout California. Our members are the dedicated individuals who tirelessly care for older adults and people with disabilities, ensuring they receive the assistance they need to lead fulfilling lives. This Labor Day, I urge us to move beyond mere words of praise and take meaningful action to support the hundreds of thousands of caregivers who make it possible for our loved ones to age with dignity. It’s important that we not only recognize the sacrifices they have made and continue to make for the well-being of our communities, but continue to fight for their right to earn a livable wage and support themselves amid rising costs of living.

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Across the nation, labor strikes are sweeping through various industries, echoing the urgent calls for justice, livable wages, and better working conditions. The voices of essential workers who have long been organizing and championing these much-needed changes are resonating louder than ever before. With the vocal support and advocacy of labor leaders like Yvonne Wheeler, president of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, I feel more confident now than ever that we have the momentum we need to realize this change. Here in California, our in-home care workers are at the forefront of this movement, and their struggle for better pay and benefits deserves our unwavering support.

In California, caregivers are 80 percent women, 74 percent people of color, and nearly half are immigrants. The crisis in the long term-care industry and the dire need for investment is a matter of racial justice. We must recognize not only the essential, but the valuable nature of these jobs, and that the people doing them—largely women of color—are fundamental members of our society. For centuries, Black, brown, AAPI, Latina, indigenous and immigrant women have sustained the life of the nation and our community, raising our children and providing life-saving care for seniors, people with disabilities and those recovering from injuries or illnesses. Yet these care providers continue to be among the most disrespected, unprotected and under-paid workers in the country and here in California.

The long-term care industry has been shaped by long-standing racist and sexist policies, and it’s time to tackle this glaring structural racism, classism and sexism head-on.

This discrepancy between the vital work long-term care providers do and the meager compensation they receive is not only unjust but it’s also unsustainable. It’s an issue of public health and safety. The people most in need are not receiving necessary care due to a shortage of caregivers, and the consequences of this shortfall are profound. Last year, more than 11.6 million authorized care hours went unused in L.A. County, according to the California Department of Social Services—11.6 million care hours that seniors and people with disabilities requested and desperately needed, indicating a crisis-level shortage of caregivers. Until we make these jobs good jobs, we will not be able to meet the growing demand and mounting need for care for our soon-to-retire neighbors.

According to the California Department of Finance, in 2040, 1 in 4 Californians will be 65 or older. California also expects its 600,000 IHSS home care consumers to explode to 1 million in just the next seven years, making this the moment to help our caregivers provide the best, most affordable care to consumers while compensating them appropriately for their direly-needed services and closing the care gap.

This Labor Day is a moment to hold our leaders accountable to address the challenges facing both those who will need care and those who provide it. As we enjoy time with our families and celebrate the achievements of the labor movement, let us remember that the fight for racial and economic justice for all workers is far from over. To truly honor the contributions of essential workers, we must recognize that the dignity and well-being of our caregivers are intrinsically linked to the health and vitality of our communities.

We must convert our words of praise into action this Labor Day. Let us stand with the caregivers who have stood by us during our times of need. It’s time to ensure that they earn a wage they can live on and that reflects the value of their work, that they have access to quality healthcare, and that they can retire with dignity. Our communities, our families, and our future depend on it.

Arnulfo De La Cruz is the president of SEIU Local 2015, the largest union in California representing nearly 450,000 long-term care providers.