Atlanta, Profile 1 of 6
Three days a week, Diane Heller takes two buses and two trains to go care for her 92-year-old client.
For more than a decade, as a live-in and live-out caregiver in her hometown of Chicago, Illinois, and in Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia, Heller has encountered meager pay, a lack of benefits, no paid time off, and sexual harassment. On one occasion, she was fired from a live-in job without cause and with no notice, which resulted in her being homeless for eight months. Despite these trials, she has always remained committed to giving her very best to her clients—including coming out-of-pocket to meet their unmet needs. Her consistent care as a contracted non-medical caregiver is unmatched by industry standards for compensation and working conditions. Though her current agency offers medical, dental, and optical insurance and covers some transportation costs, such benefits are a rarity for many homecare workers.
In addition to taking great pride in her work, Heller also is a proud member of We Dream in Black. Through the organization, she and the other members work to raise pay and improve working condition for themselves and future generation of domestic workers.
Raising standards in the field will help fulfill her dream of ensuring that domestic workers’ families are as happy and well cared for as the people that they serve.
“I love the fact that I can make a difference in someone’s life.”
I’ve had all kinds of different clients. It’s very fun, and I like that you’re your own boss. The pay situation is hard, though. And there’s no insurance and no sick days. And when you lose a job, then there’s no money. In order to make a living, you have to work seven days a week.
The only power you have is the fact that you don’t have someone standing over you like a supervisor. Other than that, the client has all of the power. If they or their family chooses someone else, you’re out of work. The fact that people can drop you like that, with no guarantees, is really hard. It’s hard to survive like that.
I ended up homeless for eight months because of not being able to get work. I moved from Atlanta to Chicago for a job that turned sour. I was a live-in; and the client was horrendous. She screamed and yelled a lot and kicked me out on the coldest day of the year. I had to go to a shelter, and it was a living hell. That’s one of the bad parts of my job: the instability.
It’s hard unless you get a good, long-term position like when I lived in Savannah. I took over a client with dementia from a negligent and criminal caregiver. I had to revamp everything. I had to replace a bed soaked in urine. I went to Target and bought her bedding with my own money. I bought her diapers and did her hair. I hung up pictures in her room to make her room more comfortable. I would take her to adult day care.
Everyone in the neighborhood was so happy, because she was being neglected and I saved her. She lost her ability to swallow, so I fed her with an injector. I would make juices to keep her strength up. On her deathbed, her last words to my son and I was that she loved us. She begged us to get her children there, and I called them. But none of them would come. When she passed, my son and I turned on the TV, played Motown, and danced the whole night, because that was what she loved the most. That was my longest job. I was with her seven years.
I love the fact that I can make a difference in someone’s life. Sometimes you’re challenged by the conditions that you find when you get there. Sometimes your client might not have any food. I’ve brought stuff from home to fix them something to eat. I’ve gone to the store on my own and done it. I don’t mind, because it makes it easier to do my job, and it makes my client happy.
I’m not just a one-faceted worker. I’m part of a team. I work with the pharmacist. A lot of times, I have to take calls and make calls to assist the client if they can’t do things. I have to work with nurses as well as doctors, because a lot of them have home visits. We have to think like this to do our work. We have to be on the same page, and that includes the family living there and the extended family.
I’ve even had to negotiate between children arguing over the proper care of the client. I talk with them. I’ve even prayed with them. If the client is not under that stress, it makes it easier on them. If people hear arguing within the family, that puts pressure on the client and can cause health problems.
My client now—when I come, she thinks of me as a friend coming to visit her. And I’m the only friend that really cares. When you get acquainted with your patient and they get to see the kind of person that you are, they change. I’ve seen it. I think it’s because of my people skills. My heart skills.
Another thing that we face is sexual harassment. I prefer not to have male clients because sometimes they might have a catheter or need to have their diapers changed. I prefer not to do that. They’re heavy, I can’t lift them, and I choose to not deal with their genitalia because sometimes they will get excited or get fresh and rub up against you, grab your breasts or pinch your butt.
I don’t really think people understand what goes into domestic work. We need to show people what domestic work consists of to build greater respect for what domestic workers have to endure on their jobs. Sometimes the hard treatment isn’t just from clients but from people that might be visiting. It makes me feel like a low person on the totem pole: not respected, looked down on. If people really got a chance to hear and talk to people that do our kind of work, they would be more compassionate. We need to educate the public.
I should be respected for the work that I do because I care for what should be our society’s most treasured members. I make sure that their moms and dads are well cared for, well fed, and happy for the time that I’m there. I have their care in my hands. Without us, a lot of them would have to give up their careers or put their relatives in a home. I’m not a babysitter. They need to know that without people like us, they might lose the people they love and cherish so much.
I would like to be able to go to work and really get ample pay, ample hours, and not have to worry about going to the doctor. I’d like to have some kind of insurance. We need something to back us up so if we lose our job, there’s a way we can get compensation until we can make it to the next one.
We need backing and support from the government. They really need to raise the pay scale. It is less than half of what it should be. And there should be a minimum number of hours for you to work. Sometimes, agencies will just give you two or three hours.
With We Dream in Black, I have a voice. I enjoy the sisterhood that we all share. I’m able to express problems that I face not only in my work but also in my private life with ladies that have similar problems. I like being able to work collectively with a bunch of ladies for a cause that we all care about and that affects our lives and livelihood because it’s for our own best interest. There’s just strength in numbers. Togetherness can move mountains. And you never know: Just getting together and working for a common goal, you can be a part of history, you can change so many lives—not just in the present but for years to come.