A storm passes over the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Sept. 11, 2018)
A storm passes over the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Sept. 11, 2018)

By Joyce Barnes

When my grandson was 15, he got a job as a janitor. He was so excited to have a few dollars in his pocket. When I asked him how much he was making, I found out he was making $10.50 an hour. That’s $2.25 more than I make. It’s hard to be jealous of your grandson, but I have to admit that I was.

I’ve been a health care worker for more than 30 years, and I make $8.25 an hour. Since 2008, I’ve worked in home health care. That means I’m the one who comes to your house and takes care of your aging mom who needs some help in order to remain independent. I help my patients get out of bed in the morning. I help them bathe. I cook meals for them and help with light housekeeping. I make sure they take their medication on time, and I help them when they are sick. I work with a patient who lost her speech when she had a stroke, so I help her re-learn how to talk. Without me, my patients would have to move into nursing homes and would be unable to remain independently in the homes they’ve built their lives in.

I’m a professional, and I’ve developed my skills over the course of a long career, but my pay doesn’t reflect that, so it hurt when I found out my grandson was making more than me at just 15 years old. I make more than the minimum wage, but still not enough. To make ends meet, I have to work more than one job and some days I work from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. Still, I’m struggling. I can barely make my car payment, so when my grandkids beg me to take some time off work and spend it with them, I have to say no. It breaks my heart, but I just can’t make it happen. I don’t get paid if I take a day so I can’t afford to get sick, much less take a vacation.

A few years ago, I got sick, and I ended up in the hospital for 12 days. I was in a lot of pain, and I almost had to have surgery. It was scary because I wasn’t sure I was going to get well again. But it was also scary because I knew that every second I was in that hospital, I was racking up huge amounts of debt. But not only that, I didn’t get paid for those days I was in the hospital, trying to get better. So that’s a double blow to my finances.

Thankfully, I’m better now, but those bills keep me up at night. Just one CAT scan cost me $2,000. And that’s just one bill. I’m still paying off those bills and my credit has taken a hit. I honestly don’t know how I will be able to work enough hours to ever pay those bills. It’s not that I don’t want to. But with what I get paid, I’m not sure if it is possible to work enough hours to pay those bills in addition to all of my other expenses. I’ve got to keep a roof over my head and gas in my car so I can get to work before I can worry about paying for that CAT scan.

This is why it’s so important that we raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. My story is not unique, and I’m not the only one who is struggling. There are 774,000 full-time workers in Virginia who would benefit if legislators voted to increase the minimum wage. These are people just like me who can’t make ends meet and are drowning in debt through no fault of their own. If legislators voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, I could work only one job. I could work fewer hours, and have some time in the evenings to rest. My grandkids are all teenagers now, but I could spend some time with them and my family. I could breathe a little easier and know that I could pay the bills that I have. If we raised the minimum wage to $15, I could have a life again.

I work hard, and I love what I do. My patients want to be able to live at home and stay out of a nursing home, and with my help, they can. It makes me happy to know that I’m helping families in our community thrive. But I also deserve to be able to live with dignity and thrive. But that’s not possible when my work is not valued and I make so little.

So I call on our legislators to get to work and make sure that people like me have the opportunity to thrive by increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour. It’s time for Virginia to get a raise.

Joyce Barnes is a home health care worker who lives in Henrico County.