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Cap Times: Mark Pocan shadows home care worker fighting for minimum wage increase

Nov 27, 2015
In The News

Cap Times

By Jessie Opoien

The "Fight for 15" is a national movement, but it's personal for home care worker Mike Dickman and his client, Steve Verriden. 

Tucked into a corner of the window of Verriden's home on Madison's north side is a small "Fight for 15" sign. Verriden, 63, has been in a wheelchair for more than 40 years after he was paralyzed in a diving accident. 

Dickman is one of five home care workers who tend to Verriden throughout the week. He's been working in home care for more than 35 years, since he was in college, and has been with Verriden for about two years. 

On Tuesday afternoon, Dickman and Verriden were visited for a few hours by U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison. As Dickman worked through his afternoon duties, he and Verriden chatted about their time together and about his job. Verriden's cat, Peanut, rested on his lap.

Peppered throughout Dickman's chatter was the phrase, "Fifteen and a union."

That's what he and other home care, child care, fast food and other low-wage workers are asking for: increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Dickman currently makes $11.43 an hour. His duties include helping Verriden get washed and dressed, taking him to the bathroom, keeping the house clean, dispensing medication, preparing meals and managing his IV lines. In Dickman's case, he also lives upstairs and covers the night shift. 

"They put a value on us that is too low," Dickman said. "Fifteen dollars and a union is still too low, but it's a great start. It is an honorable occupation."

For Verriden, it means a lot to be able to live in the home he worked to pay for, and to not have to stay in a nursing home. He tried that for about a year — "never again," he said.

After Pocan was introduced, Dickman walked him through the midday routine. He opened a metal safe secured with two combination locks to retrieve Verriden's medication — about a dozen pills a day. Verriden washed the pills down with juice, and then it was time to move from his bed to his wheelchair.


Dickman tucked the sling for Verriden's hoyer lift underneath him, then pulled him to the side to distribute it evenly. He checked for wrinkles — a common culprit for bedsores. Then he put Verriden's slippers on his feet and hooked the lift's chains to the sling. Making sure to keep Verriden balanced, he cranked the lift and swung his legs around the pole, then lowered him into the chair. 

While Verriden was seated, Dickman and Pocan prepared a lunch of scrambled eggs and sausage.

Dickman said home care workers need at least $15 an hour and a union to be able to give their clients the quality of life they deserve, but also for their own quality of life. He asked Pocan to help in Congress.

"There's valid points to both sides," Verriden said. "We have to find a middle ground."

Public support for raising the minimum wage is high, but opponents argue making such a dramatic hike from $7.25 to $15 would be harmful to the economy.

The libertarian Cato Institute suggests such a steep increase would result in job loss, particularly among low-skilled workers, and that it wouldn't do much to reduce poverty. The think tank also argued an increase to $15 an hour could lead employers to raise their prices.

"The problem is, they haven't done anything with the minimum wage for so long — if they don't put in indexing (when they do), it results in a political fight every time," Pocan said.

But he argued if everyone's wages were increased, people would spend a little more and funnel money back into the economy. 

Several states have planned minimum wage increases for 2016, though none as high as $15 an hour. Wisconsin's minimum wage, like the federal wage, is $7.25 an hour.