By Ruth Heller
Labor Day. It means, happily for most of us, a three-day weekend. Last chance to head for the beach, fire up the backyard grill, get the kids ready to go back to school. Labor Day used to be a holiday when we honored workers and the work they do. Every day we come into contact with dozens of workers who, though in plain sight, are invisible to us.
They may be bus drivers or train fare collectors or sanitation workers or mail carriers or grocery clerks or child care workers. Nearly all are underpaid and unrecognized for their contributions to making our lives and our communities livable.
Millions of them don’t get Labor Day off – e.g., emergency first responders, food service and retail sales workers, caregivers in our hospitals, nursing homes and home care. Speaking for the latter, I know that most health care workers are dedicated to the job of patient care. Those, especially in nursing homes and home care, are low-wage workers devoted to their patients. Working on Labor Day is just part of doing “the Lord’s work.”
For example, my 1199 SEIU union sister Darlene Gates. She has been a home health aide for the past 17 years, working with Alzheimer’s and dementia clients at an assisted living facility in Amherst.
On Labor Day, as always, Darlene will start out at 4:30 a.m. helping her eight special-needs foster children – ages 1 to 15 – get ready for day care (on weekdays, for school). She is out the door by 6:15.
During her shift, she cares for eight to 12 Alzheimer’s and dementia clients, depending on the day’s staffing level. “Although it can be upsetting to miss spending time with your family,” Darlene says, “taking care of other people’s loved ones is an honor. Many get no visitors during holidays so it is important that I’m there. You become their family, their support. It’s my job to make my clients feel that they are special, too.
“They may not understand all that is going on but they know they are not in their regular home. I let them know that it is OK, calm them down, and help them deal with whatever struggle they are facing.
“I spend my life taking care of people all day and I love it. I am so much more than just a home health aide to them. I am their confidant, their companion.
“My work is rewarding. Home care workers know our clients so well that we are the first to notice a change that could save one’s life. Being able to see the improvement to their quality of life just by giving them your time and companionship is an honor.”
Our families and communities are better off for people like Darlene Gates, who will be hard at work on Labor Day. Perhaps during our barbecues or shopping trips on Monday, we can take a moment to reflect on and honor those who do the work to make our lives more livable.
Ruth Heller is executive vice president of 1199 SEIU, United Healthcare Workers East Upstate/WNY Division.