Gov. Maura Healey’s administration and 1199SEIU, the union that represents Personal Care Attendants, reached a tentative contract deal this week to increase PCA pay and benefits.
Advocates say the deal is “historic” and an attempt to address the critical worker shortage that has left thousands of people with disabilities without the care they need.
The three-year contract will gradually increase pay for PCAs by implementing a wage scale that goes up to $25 an hour based on experience, an increase from the current flat rate of $18. The contract will also allow PCAs to set up retirement accounts, pay them for professional development and training, increase holiday pay and the number of holidays, and provide higher wages for PCAs who work for people with more complex needs.
More than 50,000 people across the state rely on PCAs, a MassHealth program, for daily activities like getting out of bed, showering and food preparation. Many people with disabilities say the low wages keep the workforce small, making it difficult for them to find and keep PCAs. Without an attendant, some people are left literally stranded, unable to get out of bed for days. Others are forced to rely on family and friends for help.
“PCAs have been undervalued, and forgotten and in the shadows for so long,” said Becca Gutman, vice president of home care for 1199SEIU. “And to win a contract that has a pathway to $25 — the top of our scale will reach $25.65 — really sort of nudging PCAs up out of poverty. … All of that feels like the recognition that home care workers, personal care attendants have been needing and demanding over the years.”
PCAs currently earn the same wage no matter how long they have worked in the field. The new three-year contract will allow PCAs to earn more as they have more seniority. The PCA workforce is made up largely of women of color and immigrants.
“So we're hoping that will encourage more folks to do it as a real career and for it to be really recognized as the true profession that it is,” Gutman said.
The tentative contract comes after seven months of negotiations between the union and the state, and a public campaign that has included rallies, letter writing and protests at the State House.
During her campaign for governor, Healey vowed that she would work with the union to increase PCA pay.
"I grew up watching my mom care for seniors in their homes, and I have a deep appreciation for the important work that Personal Care Attendants do," Healey said in a statement after the contract agreement. "Our administration is proud to reach this historic agreement that provides fair pay and benefits for PCAs that reflect the heroic contributions they make to Massachusetts families."
Bill Henning, executive director of the Boston Center for Independent Living, said the PCA program is pivotal for thousands of people with disabilities to be able to live independently and out of nursing homes.
“A lot of people will benefit from this,” he said. “Some folks have been institutionalized. People's health, people's independence declines when there's a shortage of attendants.”
He praised the collaboration between disability advocates and the union.
“This has been a compelling disability rights issue and a compelling labor rights issue,” he said.
Wednesday was the final day of negotiations, and about 50 PCAs and advocates gathered at the union bargaining hall in Quincy. The room erupted in applause as soon as the contract agreement came through.
“We were fired up. We were ready to go. It was just amazing,” Janice Guzman, a PCA from Worcester, said about the atmosphere.
Guzman has been a PCA for more than 20 years and can now start saving for retirement.
“This gives me a security that I will have a retirement coming to me,” she said.
For Candejah Pink, a PCA from Springfield, the contract came as a relief. She spent seven months working on the bargaining committee, driving between Springfield and Quincy to support negotiations. Pink will be a member of a newly formed racial justice committee.
For her, the retirement clause is especially exciting.
“That was the icing on the cake,” she said.