Health care workers heat up Fight for $15 campaign in Tampa

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Spurred on by organized labor, a campaign to drive up the wages for fast-food workers spread locally and across the country last year.

That campaign is now encompassing other low-income industries. Last week a group of adjunct professors held a protest on the USF campus in Tampa calling for higher wages, and now the movement is spreading to home health care workers. An hour-long discussion/revival meeting for the health workers’ movement took place Wednesday night at the Seminole Heights Public Library in Tampa. Home health care workers Reuben Masas and Ann Buckner were panelists during the first part of the meeting, attended by 60 to 70 people.

“I think it’s just time for a change,” said Masas, who’s employed at BAYADA in South Tampa. “Even the agencies don’t offer us health care, overtime, no paid vacation, no sick days. Nothing.”

“I love doing what I do,” said Buckner, who said she works 196 hours every two weeks, marketing her services through five different agencies. “You go into (patients’) homes. They expect you to do more than take care of them.”

The effort to try to drive up wages higher for home health care workers is being spurred nationally and in Florida by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Monica Russo, president of SEIU Florida State Council and executive vice president of 1199 SEIU, made an appearance, entering to wild applause.

“This isn’t a moment. This is about building a movement,” she said. She called the issue of trying to raise the wages of such hard-working employees an “incredibly challenging issue of injustice.”

“How many want to have what they’re calling the silver tsunami of incredibly rapid growth of an aging population in our country and here in our state?” she said. “These are our elders. These are our parents. And we’re not going to pay those and treat those who care for our loved ones? We’re not going to treat them with dignity and respect with a decent wage? With all this money in this economy?”

Wednesday night’s event in Tampa was one of more than two dozen similar events being held this winter in cities such as Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit and Washington, D.C. Among the notables to be speaking at the Washington event will be Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who has been supportive of the effort. Other Democrats such as former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, Illinois U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, and U.S. Rep. Fredericka Wilson of Miami Gardens are scheduled to speak at their respective cities’ events.

In Tampa, Tampa City Councilwomen Lisa Monteleone and Yolie Capin, and Hillsborough County School Board member April Griffin showed up.

“I want to thank you all for being there and fighting for what you so rightly deserve,” said Monteleone, who began her comments by speaking about the exemplary care home health care workers provided her mother in Connecticut two years ago when she was fatally ill. The councilwoman bemoaned the fact that she had no control over how much the workers could get paid, but said she could champion their cause, so she was. “It takes all of us together to make change.”

The Washington Post reported in Octobeer that the SEIU, along with other unions and advocates, has had some success on their campaign. Washington State recently signed a contract to raise wages to more than $14 an hour, while Illinois’ contract had raised the average to $13. Montana and North Dakota also have earmarked money to raise wages over the past few years. Doing so in Florida, though, will undoubtedly be a serious challenge.

“I understand the advantage of collective bargaining and collective voices,” said newly re-elected Councilwoman Capin, who said her father was a shop steward when she was growing up. “I just want to let you know you’re on the right path. … the state of Florida must bring up the wages of the hotel, hospitality, and health care workers.”

Griffin said the struggle is one worth fighting. She dropped a little of her personal biography on the crowd stuffed into the first-floor room inside the recently rebuilt library, talking about how she dropped out of high school about 30 years ago but is now just months away from earning a college degree. “I’m a fighter,” she said. “What I’m saying to you is, if I can do it, you all can do it.”

“You all deserve a living wage because you are caring for people’s lives,” she said. “You are taking care of the least of us in their moment of need; you’re helping families that can’t do it on their own. You all deserve not only the money so you can have a living wage, but the respect and dignity you give your patients every single day.”

The elected officials and Russo all reminded the audience, most of whom were black or Hispanic, of the importance of voting and electing candidates who represented their beliefs.

“How are you supposed to live on $10 an hour?” Russo said. “How are you going to do that? We need to challenge the so-called leaders. … we’re going to have to start challenging the leadership to step it up. We have to create our new leadership. Y’all need to think about your leadership.”

The event ended with a call to try to have the workers bring as many people as possible to the next big event in Tampa, a Fight for 15 celebration on April 15, to be held in Copeland Park.

Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at [email protected]



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