On Wednesday, a delegation of home care workers and their supporters gathered in front of the United Nations. Framed by the iconic array of flags, they decried New York City’s 24-hour workday policy for Medicaid-based home care aides.
The group, organized by the Ain’t I A Woman!? (AIW) campaign, hopes to bring international attention to the plight of care providers who work these 24-hour shifts. In doing so, they aim to pressure City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams to bring the bill banning a 24-hour workday, “No More 24” (Intro 175), to a vote.
“The 24-hour workday is worse than slavery,” said Lai Yee Chan, a former home care attendant, speaking at the event.
After listening to speeches and testimonials from former and current home care providers, a small group brought a petition to the UN’s security office, where it was accepted by Stefano Vaccara, a member of the United Nations Correspondents Association. “We petition the United Nations to declare 24-hour workday as a crime against humanity, and denounce Speaker Adams as the face and main perpetrator of the crime,” the document states, in part.
The specific group of home care workers in question are predominantly immigrant women employed by the Chinese-American Planning Council’s (CPC) Home Attendant Program. When home care workers take on a 24-hour contract, Medicaid will cover up to 13 hours of each shift. The remaining 11 hours are intended to be used for sleeping, eating, and breaks. But if an attendant works beyond 13 hours during a shift, their employer is required to compensate them for the otherwise uncovered 11 hours.
However, home care attendants claim that this policy is routinely abused, saying that CPC refuses to offer any compensation beyond the Medicaid-covered 13 hours, and threatens to report workers for Medicaid fraud if they accurately record their working hours. “When you’re doing this kind of work, you can be caring for patients all night long, several days at a time. It’s a basic violation of state law and human rights,” said JoAnn Lum, one of AIW’s organizers, on a phone call with the Voice before Wednesday’s demonstration.
Though many home attendant programs now opt for 12-hour contracts, CPC has continued its policy of 24-hour shifts. (CPC did not respond to a request for comment.)
“It’s not possible for most of these women to turn down a 24-hour shift,” explained Sarah Ahn, another AIW organizer, at the event. “They need the work to survive. They don’t have the option to say no, and agencies exploit this.” Luiz Estrella, a former home care aide, explained, “I’m from the Dominican Republic. I’ve never heard of 24-hour shifts there. So why here? It’s shameful that the United States permits it.” Esperanza Arriola added, “Twenty-four-hour shifts were the most traumatic thing that I’ve experienced. They destroyed my American Dream.”
At the hearing on the No More 24 Act this past September, Assemblymember Ron Kim stated that CPC receives $200 million in public funding each year. He called the perpetuation of the 24-hour workday a “case of total [abnegation] of government duty and an example of what happens when we outsource and privatize public work…. When we outsource public responsibility, we dodge accountability and are no longer pressured to fix anything,” he declared.
Assemblymember Richard Gottfried agreed that legislative action against 24-hour shifts needs to be taken, but stressed that it should be on the state level, saying, “Local government action inconsistent with state law would cause significant harm to home care agencies and in turn, harm to home care workers and the disabled and older New Yorkers who rely on their services.”
Members of Wednesday’s delegation to the UN additionally accused the 1199 United Healthcare Workers East Union (1199SEIU) of working to uphold the 24-hour workday. Said Lum on the phone, “1199 has been helping the home care agencies maintain the 24-hour shift, even though they say it should be ended. They block workers from recouping their stolen wages and are working to prevent legislation that would outlaw the 24-hour shift.”
But according to Bryn Lloyd-Bollard, 1199SEIU’s communications director, the union maintains a strong stance against the 24-hour workday. “We believe that Intro 175 is well-intentioned but have expressed concerns regarding aspects of the bill that would have negative consequences for home care workers and clients,” he explained in an email to the Voice after Wednesday’s demonstration. “The bill contains a provision that unfairly restricts home care workers from earning over 10 hours of overtime pay a week. This has ramifications for the entire home care workforce.”
In an email the Voice received on Thursday in response to a request for comment, a City Council spokesperson also emphasized that legislation against the 24-hour workday should be focused on the state level. “The state controls Medicaid, and the regulatory and payment structures of home care flow through State Medicaid, so state legislation is the way to address these problems. It is misleading and counterproductive to continue framing this issue as one that can be resolved at the city level, and deeply inappropriate to do so by lying about the Speaker’s position and through the use of personal attacks and racially problematic language.”
Rendy Desamours, senior strategist and deputy press secretary for the City Council, said during a phone call Thursday morning that the council admires the home care workers’ activism. “Of course we agree that 24-hour home care shifts are a problem in the city,” he explained. “But they also happen in other jurisdictions, and it’s just not something that the City Council has the power to address.”
But home care workers believe that the positions of both 1199SEIU and the City Council are designed to shield the financial interests of CPC and other home care agencies. “By not bringing the No More 24 Act to a vote, Speaker Adams is helping agencies to profit while allowing human rights abuses to continue unchecked,” pronounced Ahn at the demonstration.
The home care workers and the AIW campaign hope Wednesday’s petition to the United Nations will inspire an official condemnation of the 24-hour workday. “This kind of problem is systemic,” Ahn explained. “Of course we’re going to continue pushing for both statewide and citywide legislation, but the core root of a problem like this is the status quo. If 24-hour shifts are deemed a crime against humanity, then Speaker Adams and the city government will have no choice except to comply.” ❖
Ruthie Kornblatt-Stier hails from the woods of western Massachusetts and works in New York City covering topics ranging from women’s issues to the climate crisis to entrepreneurs. Her work has appeared in Worth magazine, Techonomy, and Propagule.