‘Have a heart’

In-home caregivers, struggling to make ends meet, lobby supervisors for wage increase

Ted Cottini provides care for his wife, Robin, through the IHSS program. The couple and other caregivers say they need a raise.

Ted Cottini provides care for his wife, Robin, through the IHSS program. The couple and other caregivers say they need a raise.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Robin Cottini wept as she shared her story with the Butte County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday (Oct. 8). Cottini, 50, was born with spastic cerebral palsy and her husband, Ted, is her In Home Supportive Services (IHSS) care provider, but he can barely afford to take care of her.

IHSS is a state program that pays individuals—often family members like Ted—to provide home-based care to low-income seniors and people with disabilities, and the funding comes from a combination of state, federal and local governments. Butte County providers earn minimum wage and many are struggling to get by. Ted told the CN&R that after paying rent, the couple have to hope what’s left will cover their groceries until his next paycheck.

Cottini joined other IHSS recipients and over a dozen employees in the United Domestic Workers of America union in the supervisors chambers to advocate for higher pay, before the board entered a closed session meeting to discuss ongoing negotiations. Cottini told the supervisors that she has wanted to give up on life because it is a constant struggle between her health complications and trying to fight for more care hours and higher wages. Her husband and her faith have kept her going, she said.

“It’s a lot cheaper and a lot easier on us—and we’re a lot happier and we live a longer life—if we’re allowed to live at home,” she said. “But there’s no way we can afford to live at home if you do not give [IHSS caregivers] a pay raise.”

Union workers have maintained that because IHSS is predominantly funded by the state and federal government a 50 cent raise shouldn’t unduly burden the county. They have argued that the investment is worthwhile, because IHSS workers are part of the local economy and provide preventative care.

Several IHSS workers shared stories of the lengths they have gone for their clients, driving over to their homes at 3 a.m. to help them after a fall or medical emergency; bringing them food or helping them pay the power bill.

Carnella Marks told the CN&R that many IHSS caregivers are dedicating unpaid hours to serve their clients because they are restricted on the number of hours they can be paid by the state, and there are penalties for working overtime.

“We’re spreading ourselves thin to help the people we know who don’t have providers and need care,” she said. “If we see somebody who is disabled and needs our help, we don’t pass them up, even though [the supervisors] pass us up. Because that’s the kind of heart we have.”

Health care providers and social workers have suggested that Cottini live in a care facility, she told the supervisors on Tuesday, but she has had bad experiences with them and she wants to be with her husband.

“I’m tired of hearing the excuses. ‘We don’t have enough money to give people 25 or 50 cents more.’ That’s a bunch of crap,” Cottini said. “Somebody has to do something. Gosh darn it, it’s not just for me, it’s for other people. I’m looking out for my husband and for other people that work their butts off.”

Ted said he’s hoping the supervisors come around on the raise, and “have a heart” for caregivers and the people they serve.

“If I could do it for free, I would,” he said. “But I can’t make it. The cost of living is too high.”

The county is in the midst of labor negotiations with the union, but this has been an ongoing issue for the workers, who have advocated for a raise above state minimum wage multiple times in the past decade. The next bargaining session is on Oct. 28, according to Dwane Camp Jr., the union’s regional coordinator for Butte County. Camp said the union is asking for a 50 cent wage increase. The county’s last offer would have been a net loss, he told the CN&R: a 25 cent increase but with the removal of health care benefits.

Several IHSS employees in attendance told the supervisors that offer had felt like a slap in the face.

Camp described the situation in Butte County as dire: 400 providers were displaced after the Camp Fire. Plus, data from the state Department of Social Services shows that there is a disparity in care, with 141 more recipients seeking care than available providers, as of August 2019. In his view, the county risks widening this gap by continuing to pay inadequate wages.

Butte County Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Brian Ring told the CN&R later that while he cannot comment on any specifics of the negotiations, “we absolutely are trying to find something that meets everybody’s needs.” The county is trying to remain fiscally responsible while balancing many needs post-Camp Fire, he said.

The supervisors mainly remained silent. When a care provider asked Supervisor Bill Connelly why he was not making eye contact with the speakers, Connelly replied that he was taking extensive notes, and had concluded that the county needs to lobby the state for the increase. The county is still deliberating. There was no announcement after its closed session negotiations.

Reached for comment the morning after the meeting, Supervisor Tami Ritter told the CN&R that while the state program is flawed, the county should not wait to act. Home health care is “one of the most underpaid and unrecognized professions that we have.” The county should invest in preventative services that save taxpayers in the long run, and the care IHSS workers provide prevents unnecessary emergency room visits and costly institutional care.

“I think it’s imperative that we let these workers know that they are valued and that the people that they care for are valued,” she said.