If I Can Do It, So Can You!

This blog is a repost from an article I submitted to the Direct Care Alliance, February, 2009.

Earlier this month, I had  a long talk with someone from the Wage and Hour Division of the Office of the Secretary of the Department of Labor. She had called because she wanted to hear what I had to say about the exclusion of home care workers from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

Why did the U.S. Department of Labor call a direct support professional for input on a federal ruling? Well, that’s a long story.

It started when I joined my state direct care worker association a year and a half ago. I had no idea what to expect — and I certainly didn’t expect to become the president. But that’s what happened in the second meeting, when I was voted president of the Direct Support Professional Association of Minnesota because of my leadership initiative. I joined DSPAM as a part of a board revitalization, so a number of us were new. I was not only new but a virgin advocate, if you will.

In the coming months, I would learn about how to run effective meetings, oversee activities, talk publicly about my organization, and more. The learning curve was painful, but I loved every second of it. I loved it for I am a direct care worker who knows how much we are worth, but how little we are valued.

My frustration is what motivated me to want to advocate. I was out to show the world how important we workers are and why we deserve better.

My education as an advocate was compounded when I was selected to attend the Voices Institute, a leadership development program designed by the Direct Care Alliance. I was completely transformed as an advocate during the week I spent in this retreat-style program last May. A lot has happened since then– lots of amazing opportunities to advocate and grow as a leader.

Now, let me show what I can do!

Early this year, the Direct Care Alliance supported me in writing a letter to the Secretary of the Department of Labor. I told Secretary Chao about my background and my deep concerns about the current Fair Labor Standards Act regulations that exclude home care workers as “companions.” I used my personal story to illustrate how these regulations are harmful to workers and how sub-standard compensation forces many direct care workers into a poverty cycle, which in turn, costs more tax dollars in welfare aid. I stated that if our long-term care system is to survive, these regulations desperately need to be changed, especially considering the upcoming explosion that will occur in demand for home care workers.

Someone heard my voice in Washington D.C. I received that phone call from the Department of Labor. The caller wanted to “clarify the information” in my letter.

I had a very long conversation about the regulations with the person who called me, and was encouraged to put pressure on Congress to change the exemption to allow minimum wage and overtime pay protections. This person told me that with enough pressure, laws have been changed in the past. “It would be good for workers to band together; you can make a difference,” I was told.

When workers are knowledgeable about issues that affect them because they have a source to inform them, they can have an impact like I did. The Direct Care Alliance is helping workers to do this. They are the source for direct care worker empowerment. I know it first-hand and because I connect with workers every day who have been touched by the Direct Care Alliance in a meaningful way. We have the support we need to advocate for ourselves.

And if I can do it, so can you!

Bridget Siljander
Direct Care Worker Specialist
Direct Care Alliance

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