By Merissa Clyde / For The Herald

As my family plans to support my aging parents, it’s likely we — like many families — will need to rely on a caregiver to help them with essential tasks of daily living.

Caregiving is foundational for our economy. For many, having a caregiver provide support to a family member allows them to remain in the workforce with peace of mind knowing their loved one is cared for and supported while they’re away.

For these caregivers, or “home care aides,” to be best positioned to care for clients, it’s paramount they have access to professional benefits many of us take for granted. For years, many paid caregivers in Washington state have had access to high-quality, affordable health coverage for themselves – but not for their kids.

Now, as of August, children of the state’s more than 50,000 caregivers have access to the same health coverage as caregivers themselves. This marks momentous progress for the professionalization of this essential workforce. It’s also a wise investment in an occupation with a rapidly growing demand.

By 2040, Washington’s 65-and-older population is projected to reach 22 percent (up from 17 percent today). Adding to this, seniors are increasingly seeking options to age in place. In fact, my own family has already struggled to identify caregivers to support my parents in Skagit County. At this time of growing need, strong professional benefits, like dependent health coverage, solidify caregiving as a compelling career path.

This milestone is the result of a newly ratified collective bargaining agreement between the caregivers’ union, SEIU 775 and Consumer Direct Care Network Washington, the largest employer of caregivers in the state, following a fully funded home care rate increase by the Legislature in 2022.

For too long, caregiving has been undervalued. Care is often done by female family members or has historically been one of the few jobs available to women of color and immigrants. Today, Black women in the health care sector are overrepresented in its lowest-paid long-term care roles. In fact, caregiving was one of few professions left out of the landmark 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, setting in place decades of underinvestment that reinforced the notion that care work is charitable rather than a crucial health care profession.

Washington is a leader in addressing these inequities. Our caregivers receive skills-based training and can become professionally certified, thereby increasing

their wages and job quality. They have had access to individual health coverage since the early 2000s and began to receive contributions to a first-in-the-nation retirement plan in 2019. And now, caregivers can elect health coverage that allows them to take their kids to the doctor or dentist without worrying about exorbitant costs.

In speaking with caregivers about this change, their relief is palpable.

Alyssa, a mother of two kids with special needs from Sedro-Woolley shared, “It’s huge; knowing I can get them the care they need without having to worry about the costs. It’s just a big burden off my shoulders.”

And Becky from Lacey, whose daughter just graduated high school, confided, “I just don’t have to worry as much anymore because my oldest daughter is covered until she can get out there and get her own.”

These quotes underscore how this new dependent coverage is enhancing the attractiveness of the caregiving profession at a time when its especially needed.

It’s estimated that 7 in 10 of us will need long-term care to live independently at some point in our lives. In Washington, our new WA Cares long-term care benefit will begin to play a role in easing the costs of this care. But, for people to take full advantage of this support, we need to attract and retain workers to the caregiving profession. Investing in caregivers — like our state’s newly expanded health coverage for their kids — builds up the infrastructure of care that benefits us all.

Merissa Clyde is the CEO of SEIU 775 Benefits Group, serving the skills, health and stability of the caregiving workforce through benefits and programs.

Talk to us