For me, home care is a calling. There are few things as satisfying to me as helping my clients live autonomous lives of dignity in their own homes rather than being warehoused in an institution. Through this work, I’ve made some of my deepest friendships.

I love this work, but it hasn’t always loved me.

Fifteen years ago, many homecare workers in Oregon earned less than minimum wage. Many of us worked two or three jobs to keep a roof over our heads. We rarely saw our families. Many of us literally had to choose between keeping the lights on or keeping food on the table.

In those days, despite the fact that we worked hard to provide health care services to thousands of seniors and people with disabilities in Oregon, we had no access to health care ourselves. If we got sick, we had to choose between showing up to work sick and risk getting our clients sick, or stay home and risk not being able to pay rent.

Then, in 1999, we came together and voted to form a union. The effects have been nothing short of life-changing for tens of thousands of personal support and homecare workers.

For many of us, the burden of poverty has been lightened. Instead of earning less than minimum wage, Oregon home care workers are now some of the highest paid in the nation at $14.50 an hour (or $15 per hour for those of us who take advantage of extra training).

Through the Homecare Workers Trust — an entity negotiated in our last contract with the state — we get assistance enrolling in, and paying for, our health insurance, including vision and dental. We also have access to several days per year of paid time off, so that we don’t have to choose between caring for our client and caring for ourselves or our kids when we get sick.

We have increased access to training, so that providing homecare no longer has to be a dead end, but can be a step up the ladder for those who want to advance their career. This helps keep qualified people in the field and dramatically improves the quality of care that our seniors and people with disabilities receive.

Homecare workers have also worked through our union to advocate alongside our clients for their dignity, autonomy and choice of care settings. In fact, our union, SEIU Local 503, has been one of the strongest advocates for the care and support of our state’s most vulnerable residents.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, homecare is one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation. But with a national median wage of only $10.87 per hour, it’s also one of the lowest-paid.

We, as homecare workers, are quickly becoming the backbone of not just elderly care, but of the nation’s entire workforce. That means that when we do better, we all do better — as a family, as a community, as a nation.

America needs our industry to be as strong as possible, and we need our union to be as strong as we can be.

So this Labor Day, I’d like to make a call to action to my fellow homecare and personal support workers around the country. Our strong union has meant increased security for workers and better quality of life for our clients. It has meant that those of us who feel called to care for people have been able to sustain a career and provide for our families.

The power to follow suit is in your hands, and it starts with building your union.

— Rebecca Sandoval is a homecare worker in Medford and president of SEIU Local 503’s Homecare Division.