Low-paid health care workers join nationwide protests

Emboldened by fast-food workers, some of the nation's lowest-paid health care workers are pushing for higher wages, joining protests across the country on Thursday.

The campaign comes amid moves by California and New York to gradually increase their baseline pay to $15 an hour, even as other states move to block such efforts within their borders.

"I've been a home care provider for five years, and after all that time, I have to make impossible choices between rent and food for my three kids," D.C. home care worker Rhina Garabito said in a statement issued by organizers of the Fight for $15 campaign.

The group said tens of thousands of workers took part in the demonstrations in cities including New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago, where protesters reportedly shut down an expressway ramp.

In the nation's capital, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser held a press conference to call for raising wages to $15 an hour before joining a Service Employees International Union 1199 rally.

"Nursing home chains, not unlike McDonald's and other corporations, keep wages low to make their profits higher instead of investing in those of us who actually provide direct care," Maribel Rodriguez, who has worked as a certified nursing assistant for 29 years, said in a statement issued by the union.

The District of Columbia, like the rest of the nation, faces a shortage of home health care workers, with one provider for every five consumers who need the services, according to Fight for $15 organizers, which drew presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to social media to express his support.

An estimated 2 million Americans work as home health aides, the nation's fastest-growing occupation and also among the lowest paid. Average pay for these workers, who look after the elderly, disabled and chronically ill, is less than $10 an hour.

Data out this week paints a similar picture for nursing assistants, an occupation where erratic schedules and poor pay also translate to high turnover and unfilled positions.

For the 650,000 nursing assistants employed at the nation's 15,000 nursing homes, the median hourly wage is $11.51, the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute (PHI) said in a report. Adjusted for inflation, nursing assistants' wages have declined 7 percent over the past decade, with yearly earnings averaging $19,000 and one in three nursing assistants relying on public assistance to get by, PHI said. Nearly half of nursing assistants live in households earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Nursing assistants are also at higher risk for on-the-job injuries. The occupation ranks with police officers, correctional officers, firefighters, construction workers and truck drivers as jobs with more than 300 injuries per 10,000 full-time workers, PHI found.