Marte, Demonstrators Call for Law Ending Home Care Aide 'Slavery'

City Councilman Christopher Marte speaks to demonstrators outside City Hall, recalling how his own mother was absent from the family due to working long hours as a home attendant. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib 

May. 03, 2024

Chants of “No More 24!” rose from a crowd of well over 100 demonstrators packed onto the sidewalk Wednesday outside City Hall. The May Day rally was the latest in a two-year effort by advocates to convince City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams to bring to a vote a bill that supporters say would end 24-hour shifts for home attendants of Medicaid recipients. 

The demonstration followed a six-day hunger strike in March, at the same Broadway and Murray Street location, of current and former home aides. The bill they support, sponsored by City Councilman Christopher Marte, is intended to allow for reimbursable split shifts of 12 hours each. The current “slaverysystem, as they call it, is based on an interpretation of a state Department of Labor rule that categorizes home care aides as “live-in” employees. That rule presumes the workers get meal breaks and eight hours of sleep. But advocates say the aides can be on call at all hours of the day and night, 11 of those hours unpaid.

Working 24 hours, up to six days a week “affected my health, my back, my vision, and my ears as well. Now I cannot sleep without pills. My family was also impacted, I had to leave my three kids, they felt abandoned,” Socorro Toribio, a retired home attendant, told the rallyers. 

Jian Hua Deng said she was forced to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to care for a post-surgical cancer patient. “It took three weeks for the company to find another worker and from then on I worked 24 hours a day, three days a week. I couldn’t get any rest day and night,” Deng said through an interpreter. 

“Thousands of women in New York City are suffering from this physical and mental torture,” she added. “Today we stand up and refuse to be slaves anymore.”

Marte said the bill he is promoting is personal. “My mom was a home attendant who worked 24-hour shifts for seven years,” he told the crowd. “For seven years I didn’t see my mom when I got home. For years my dad wasnt be able to talk to his wife. For years my siblings couldn’t ask my mom for support, because she was taking care of someone. Why do these women have to make these decisions every single day?”

A spokesman for Adrienne Adams said Marte’s bill, Intro 615, would have no teeth because it’s the state, not the city, that dictates the law. “A city bill won’t change any of these dynamics, especially because we don’t control how Medicaid is funded and the regulations that come through the State Department of Labor,” the spokesman said.

“We’re pushing for the state to do it and they’re pushing us on the City Council,” he added. “So it’s like, we’re not actually moving forward on a state level to get to where the solution can be achieved.”

Al Cardillo, president and chief executive of the Home Care Association of New York, said “the source of the issue” is largely the payment methods regulated by the State Health Department and the Medicaid system, plus what would be a huge increase in staffing costs. (That expense, approximately doubling the amount Medicaid now pays in New York City, would be $650 million, according to an analysis by 1199SEIU, the union that represents the workers.)

An amendment to the state’s policy, plus an approximate doubling of funding for additional staff, Cardillo said, is what is required to solve what he acknowledges is inadequate compensation for the hours worked.

While not expressing support for the proposed city legislation, Rose Ryan, a spokeswoman for 1199SEIU, said in a statement that “we continue to advocate for making change at the state level to prevent for-profit insurance companies from extracting billions of dollars in profit and administrative overhead at the expense of home care workers and their clients. Medicaid dollars must be reinvested back into the system to raise workers’ wages and ensure payment for every home care hour worked.”

Marte calls the problem “greed” on the part of the home care agencies, and the private insurance companies that are intermediaries between the Medicaid system and the agencies. He argues that other cities in the state have managed to limit worker hours under the same state program. Unlike in those cities, he said, New York City’s home attendants are often Latin American, Chinese or African immigrants with limited English skills.

When you look at, for example, home care workers in Rochester and Buffalo, many are white, many are college educated and understand their rights and understand what their protections are,” Marte said in an interview. He noted that today’s home care aides are similar to those who were employed in the city’s now-vanished garment industry.

“But it’s ironic because now they have worse working conditions as home care workers than they did in a sweatshop factory,” Marte said. “That’s what we continue to try to highlight. It’s only here in New York City.”