Mary Burse can hardly remember when she first met Georgia Logan, only that it was about 30 years ago on a Sunday. Back in the days when Logan was the newest member of Zion Baptist Church in Compton, and Burse was a young congregation member who wanted to make her feel welcome.
They taught Sunday School together, and after Burse was in a bad automobile accident 15 years ago, Logan helped her back to health, deepening their friendship. Now, with Logan, 82, weak, nearly blind and alone, it is Burse, 58, who is there to help.
Burse is Logan's home health care worker, one of approximately 40,000 men and women in Los Angeles County who provide care and companionship to the elderly and disabled. They dress the blind, dispense medicine to the sick, bathe, cook and shop for the weak and perform a myriad of other tasks--all for the state minimum wage of $4.25 an hour. They can earn a maximum of $1,202.75 per client per month--less if the client is not severely disabled.
Poor Helping the Poor
They are often the middle-aged taking care of the elderly, the poor taking care of the poor. According to home care union and program officials, 95% of Los Angeles County home care providers are women, 90% are black or Latino.
Their jobs are the result of a decade-old state program designed to provide services to the poor and infirm who would otherwise have to be institutionalized at tremendous costs to the state, said Julia Takeda, In-Home-Supportive-Services program deputy for Los Angeles County. State and county officials point out that it is less costly to provide home care workers for disabled people than to pay for nursing home care.
Recently, about 15,000 home care workers in Los Angeles County have made headlines by forming a union and pressing their fight for health insurance, sick pay and the right to negotiate for raises.
But before they can attain a pay increase, the workers must forestall a proposed $64-million state budget cut to the in-home services program, a cut that would be achieved by freezing their pay at California's minimum wage and limiting their work hours.
They also need an employer. Supervised by the county but paid by the state, they are workers with no one to bargain with or get benefits from. The 1 1/2-year-old home care workers union is preparing to go to court for a second time to try establish the county as their employer, or to have the court recognize the county and state as joint employers, said Kirk Adams, chief organizer for the union of home care workers in Los Angeles County.
Health care experts praise the home care workers for providing companionship as well as care and credit them for enabling the infirm to maintain some dignity and independence.
"They are lifesavers," said Dr. Monika White, assistant director of the Senior Care Network at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena. "Most people want to live at home, no matter what the home is like . . . you can always say, 'At least I'm not in a nursing home.' Dignity is very important."
Slightly more than half the home care workers in Los Angeles County are taking care of their relatives or close friends, Takeda said. Ann Kreibaum is one, a woman who had to give up a $30,000-a-year job as a data entry operator to care for her son, severely disabled by a stroke in 1981. The rest are paid to take care of strangers. Many of them stay with the often-demanding work because they develop close bonds with their clients or get a sense of personal satisfaction from helping others, especially the elderly.
The relationships are not always easy. "The older generation is very resistant to help," White says. "You're talking about people who lived through the Depression, who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps."
Georgia Logan was one of those people. A teacher in her youth in the South, she worked as an Avon Lady most of her life, selling makeup until she became legally blind. Her bedroom dresser is covered with jars and bottles, long empty of any perfume, that serve as reminders of the days when she drove the streets of Los Angeles peddling cosmetics.
"She loves her keepsakes," said Burse, smiling as she made up "Miss Logan's" bed one Wednesday morning.
It was 11 a.m., and Burse had just finished preparing a plate of sausage and eggs for Logan. "She loves to eat," Burse said, chuckling and washing off fruit in the kitchen.
Soon, the two women sat eating fruit at the dining room table while Logan knitted an afghan and Burse read the newspaper. Despite their apparent concentration, each of them was following a TV drama.
"She's falling for that con man," said Logan, shaking her head over "The Young and The Restless."
"She sure is," replied a disapproving Burse.
The young woman in the drama suddenly told her handsome suitor, "I want you to meet my dad," and both women, like schoolgirls watching a horror movie, yelled in unison "No, you don't!"