Tracy has built a career helping others, but she feels like she’s taken a vow of poverty.
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When Tracy Dudzinski got her start in care work shortly after high school, she had no idea what she was getting into.

Tracy grew up in a small town in central Wisconsin. She married her high school sweetheart after graduating, and they started to build their lives together. But when a disability left him unable to work, Tracy's path changed; she needed to bring in some extra money.

A nursing home in town was offering free certified nursing assistant classes, so she signed up. Tracy didn’t really understand what care work involved. She figured it couldn’t be much harder than babysitting, so she jumped right in.


The reality shocked her.

Image via Tracy Dudzinsky, used with permission. ‌‌

You see, care work is definitely not babysitting. It’s much more than that.  

Care workers are challenged physically, mentally, and emotionally. They monitor medication use for their patients, some of whom may suffer from illnesses like dementia. They assist with bathing, grooming, and other personal care. They prepare meals. They assist with housekeeping and so much more.

The people receiving care are dependent on their caregivers, and the caregivers are very aware of the responsibility that comes with that type of dependency. They don’t want to let anyone down.

But in so many ways, caregivers are being let down by the system.

Since care work doesn’t require a college degree, it's considered entry-level, so workers scrape by on extremely low salaries. With an average hourly wage of $9.25, Tracy says that many caregivers can’t even afford their own health care costs — even though their job involves caring for the health of others.

"They always say 'caregivers are a special kind of people,'" Tracy said. "Because people know that if you’re really, truly a caregiver, you’re going to take care of people no matter what. So you kind of get taken advantage of."

‌Image via CQC Press Office/Flickr. ‌

She continued:

"I missed a lot of my kids' high school sports activities. I actually left my son's graduation party because they called me, and the person I was helping needed service — someone had called in ... because if I don’t do it or my company doesn’t help take care of people, what will happen to them? ... It’s the right thing to do. But even though it’s the right thing to do, we’re not respected. We’re not paid what we’re worth ... it’s almost like you take a vow of poverty."

Still, Tracy shows up for work every day because she feels an obligation to help. Because she knows the work she does isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. It saves lives.

So why is this the state of affairs? Well, it's complicated.

Home care workers care for older individuals and individuals with disabilities, many of whom cannot afford the care they need. They rely on government assistance like Medicaid to cover the cost of their care. But here's the thing: What the government pays for home care isn't enough. And it hasn't been for a long time.

Home care workers have been devalued since President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, when a block of congressmen refused to allow the deal to pass until certain job protections were removed. These job protections would have included basic rights, such as wage and overtime protections for domestic roles — roles that were primarily filled by black women. Not much changed until recently, when the Fair Labor Standards Act made improvements that require agencies to pay home care workers minimum wage and overtime. But there is still more work to be done.

The reimbursement rate — the amount the state actually pays to home care providers on behalf of individuals — has to increase. If it doesn't, home care — the people who need it and the people who deliver it — will continue to suffer. Home care workers will continue to struggle to care for their own families, and we'll fail to make home care work an appealing job, even as the need for home care workers rises.

Image via Geralt/Pixabay.

Awareness of this problem is the first step toward a solution.

Tracy points out that "there’s a lot more to this line of work that the public doesn’t know unless someone they love is receiving service."  And even then, a lot of people receiving home care aren't aware of how little the caregivers make and the struggles they face.

So for now, workers have taken it upon themselves to demand fair wages. They show up to work each day and they organize on the side, joining groups such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance. They go to meetings and they learn to speak up for themselves because if no one knows their stories, nothing will ever change.

And there are steps being made in the right direction. Businesses like Cooperative Care — where Tracy now works as an administrative coordinator and caregiver — are trying to take initiative and shake up the industry. Cooperative Care is employee-owned. In many ways, this means they operate like their own union, looking out for the best interests of the workers while being mindful of very real business needs. And their workers are able to make $30,500 per year — which is 30% to 50% above the industry median. It’s still not enough, but it’s a start. Their model works; they're just limited by the state's reimbursement rate.

That’s why The Fight for $15 is so important.

It’s shining a spotlight on this issue, showing its complexity. Because the fight for a livable minimum wage has never been a simple one.

The state reimbursement rate has to be raised to make that much-needed salary hike a reality. And cutting back on staff isn’t an option: As the large baby boomer population ages, the demand for home care work rises. In North Carolina, the percent of the population age 65 and older is expected to grow to 2.8 million by 2050, up from 1.3 million in 2012. And that's just one state.

So, the demand is there and the need is clear, but the salary requires a sacrifice that shouldn’t be asked of these workers. Care work providers are stuck between a rock and a hard place, and they're hoping that as their voices are heard, the barriers will fall away.

Tracy says her daughter has chosen to enter the industry in spite of her cautions.

She’s seen the reality, seen her mother’s struggles, and still, she wants to help. There are people, like Tracy and her daughter, who will continue to answer the call to help, which makes it even more important that we make sure their voices are heard. They devote their lives to helping others and are only fighting for the ability to support themselves. No more, no less.

Change is around the corner. The Fair Labor Standards Act was recently revised to include caregivers. More co-ops like Cooperative Care are being formed. The tide is turning, slowly. But more is needed.

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash
smiling woman in gray hoodie beside smiling boy in blue and red jacket

After a year and a half of a global pandemic and domestic upheaval, most of us are feeling some variation of tired, fried, exhausted and generally done with everything. We've been swimming through choppy and uncharted waters, and even strong swimmers need a life jacket under such conditions.

We can all use an extra measure of grace and understanding as we navigate these waters, which is why this email from a professor to her English 101 class is so dang heartwarming. This message went out to students the day after their first essay was due, with the subject line, "You need a break today."

Here's what it said:

"All,

The pandemic is kicking everyone's ass. Can I say that? I don't know, but I did.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!