Local disability organizations hosted a rally in Boston Wednesday to call for better wages and working conditions for personal care attendants, or PCAs, who support people with disabilities and help them live independently. Advocates say the state program faces a “crisis” of staffing shortages.

More than 100 PCAs and the people who rely on them made their way from the 32BJ SEIU union hall to The Embrace statue on the Boston Common, and then marched into the State House to deliver a letter with demands to Gov. Maura Healey’s office. They are asking the governor to increase the hourly PCA wage to $25, improve benefits and retirement security, and provide better job training for career advancement.

The MassHealth PCA program provides support to people with disabilities who live at home to help them stay out of nursing homes. PCAs, who are hired and managed by the disabled consumer, help with daily tasks like getting out of bed, showering, dressing and preparing food. There are more than 58,000 PCAs in the state — mostly women of color — but the workforce is not large enough to support everyone who needs them.

PCAs currently make $17.80 an hour, which will go up to $18 on April 1. Advocates say further increasing pay will attract more people to the job by competing with rising wages in other industries.

Because of the staffing shortage, some people can’t find personal care attendants and are forced to rely on family and friends. Ellie Vargas said that without PCAs, her mother has had to fill in to care for her, even though she isn’t a trained healthcare worker.

“My mother is 65 years old. She can't do this anymore, you know? So it's not only having issues with housing, but I'm having PCA issues for the last three-plus years,” she said.

“It's just been horror story after horror story,” she said. Vargas added that her physical health has suffered because she is often left without help. “These people [PCAs] work way too hard to get a little measly check, that they can't invest in their own insurance.”

A person in a wheelchair sits in front of a sign that say "a PCA is more than a personal care attendant - patient, loving, kind, friend, compassion."
Ellie Vargas at a rally in Boston to support PCAs on Mar. 1, 2023.
Meghan Smith GBH News

Quincy resident Dan Harris said that he wouldn’t be able to live on his own without personal care attendants.

“I’m a person with a disability who relies on personal care attendants to be able to live the most independent life that I can,” he said outside Healey’s office. “And I feel like I’m fighting for my life, because personal care attendants are my lifeline to the community.”

State Sen. Lydia Edwards was also at the rally, which was sponsored by healthcare union 1199SEIU, the Boston Center for Independent Living and numerous other elderly support and disability organizations.

Edwards’ mother was a personal care attendant, and she says that she saw firsthand how vital their work is, yet they are often struggling themselves with low wages.

“Independently living, with dignity and respect, supported by jobs that pay a living wage, is the only future I’m going to accept,” Edwards said in front of The Embrace statue.

Deborah Stephens, a PCA who lives in Chicopee, says she regularly works 50 hours a week, the maximum she is allowed, to help cover other PCAs when they’re unable to work.

Better benefits, like more sick time, would help, she said.

“If I get sick, they [the consumers] don't have anyone to take care of them. I don't have sick wages. I only have PTO,” she said while marching through the Common. “I'm 61 years old. I'm approaching retirement age myself, but I want to be able to have something to retire with.”

Isaias Ruiz, a PCA who says he finds his work rewarding, said that the state should pay healthcare workers more, and also help them pay for expensive certifications.

“We shouldn’t have to work three or four jobs to make ends meet,” he said at the labor union hall. “And we should be able to save and invest for retirement.”

Before taking office, Healey pledged to support the PCA program and improve conditions. Marchers hope she keeps that promise, and improves the home care system as the state’s population ages.

“This will affect all of us because sooner or later — I will get old. You'll get old. What happens then? We’re just going to fail the elderly,” Vargas said.

Have your say

GBH News is teaming up for statewide coverage of Gov. Healey's first months in office with New England Public Media in Western Massachusetts and CAI on the Cape, coast and islands. Do the governor's priorities line up with the issues that are top of mind for you? We'd like to hear what you would add to her list. Visit this page to share your thoughts.