Sumer Spika could do something else with her life for a lot more money, but she doesn’t.
The 37-year-old mother of four is a home care worker. She cares for a deaf 10-year-old girl after school, taking her to taekwondo, interpreting for her among friends, and keeping a sharp eye while she eats because of the girl’s tendency to swallow funny and aspirate food into her lungs.
Her other clients are a married couple who both use wheelchairs and require help with housekeeping, eating, and grooming. They have a four-year-old daughter. Without Spika, they would have to live in one of the state’s overcrowded hospitals or nursing homes, and probably lose their child.
“When I go over on Sunday mornings and get my two clients ready to go to church, I get to see the smiles, how excited they are to get out of the house and go to church and be a part of the community,” Spika says. “I’m not going to have that as a bank teller.”
For Spika, the importance of the home care worker is pronounced because her husband, who has been diagnosed with a progressive form of multiple sclerosis, also receives such help. Without it, Spika wouldn’t be able to work her two jobs and earn her family’s keep.
Tremendous sacrifices come with her career. Spika’s employer is the state of Minnesota, and she is compensated through Medicaid. Defying the commonly held belief that low-wage jobs are reserved for pimple-faced teenagers, home care workers make just about $11 an hour without benefits starting out.
Those poverty wages mean there’s just $40 left in Spika’s checking account when she fills the fridge, and every month she arranges her bills from first to final warning. Scant time off meant returning to work within days of giving birth to her children. As for taking them on a vacation, she can only dream.
There are times she thinks about finding a better-paying job. Then she’s reminded that Minnesota doesn’t have enough home care workers as it is to keep from institutionalizing people who, with a bit of help, could otherwise have a shot at a semi-independent life.
In November 29, Spika blocked an intersection in front of a downtown McDonald’s, arm in arm with her clients, the married couple, and other low-wage workers as part of a Fight for 15 national day of action.
Tired of telling people for years about the state’s care crisis — and that a job as important as home care should not pay so little — she felt like she had no other choice. They were promptly arrested, but never charged.
“I want there to be meaning to what I do, and I want to leave this life knowing I made a difference,” Spika says. “There have been times when I think I can’t do this anymore, I’m going to have to do something else. And when it comes to that point of saying, ‘OK, I gotta tell them now,’ I can’t, because who else is gonna do it?”