ALAMEDA — An East Bay woman who in 2007 allowed then Sen. Barack Obama to accompany her on her job caring for a homebound man during his presidential campaign has become one of thousands caught up in a power struggle between President Barack Obama and his administration and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger over whether the Golden State should collect billions in federal stimulus money.
Unfortunately, like the rest of her 300,000 home care worker colleagues in California, Pauline Beck emerged from the mostly-off-the-radar scuffle between the two political titans bruised — and certainly poorer for the experience.
Beck, a member of the Service Employees International Union, allowed the senator in the summer of 2007 to accompany her to her job caring for client John Thornton, a retired cement mason, at his Oakland home. During the experience, Obama can be seen on this YouTube video sweeping, mopping and cooking for the elderly gentleman under Beck’s watchful eyes.
In the video, Beck is heard saying:
“I’m Pauline Beck, an SEIU home care worker in Alameda County, and today Sen. Barack Obama walked in my shoes ….When he came (to my home) for breakfast it felt like he was just one of the family.”
A part of candidate Obama’s “Walk a Day in my Shoes” campaign program, the encounter received broad attention from print and broadcast media. In fact, it was such a successful campaign moment that Obama’s staff arranged to have Beck speak at the Democratic National Convention in Denver a year later.
“I learned some specific things that home care workers go through,” Obama says on the video. “The priority Pauline placed on having paid sick leave reminds me of how important that is to the workforce as a whole — many of whom are in her position and do not have paid sick leave.”
But Beck, a mother of three and foster mother of two, soon won’t likely be worrying whether she has access to sick leave. Going forward, she’ll likely be focused on how her paycheck is being slashed by Schwarzenegger, who has vowed to make cuts in virtually all aspects of state government to fight a massive $21 billion deficit.
At the crux of the dispute is whether Schwarzenegger disqualified the state from receiving $8 billion in federal stimulus money in February when he cut the wages of the estimated 300,000 home health care workers like Beck across the state. The governor saw to it that Beck and her colleagues had their hourly wages cut by $2 — from $12 to $10 — thus saving the state about $75 million. Now, following the failure of five of six propositions during this week’s special statewide election, the governor has disclosed that he wants to drop that wage to $8 per hour.
The popular home care worker effort is a state program designed to keep low-income disabled and elderly persons from having to be admitted to nursing homes.
Alerted to the alleged rules infraction by the SEIU, officials with the Obama Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services initially agreed that the governor had violated the rules of the federal stimulus program and went so far as to send a letter to him saying they were planning to withhold the money until California revoked the wage cuts. The administration argued that Schwarzenegger’s pay cuts violated the terms of federal stimulus money rules because they would force cash-strapped local governments to make up the lost pay.
But following a flurry of back-channel communications from Sacramento to Washington, D.C., — plus one high-profile personal visit by Schwarzenegger on Tuesday — HHS officials relented and released the money.
But SEIU, which contributed a total of $33 million to Obama’s campaign, was quick to condemn Schwarzenegger for his actions in making the wage cuts. The union, however, was reluctant to suggest that the president caved to the pressure presented by the governor.
“Two years ago, President Barack Obama walked a day in the shoes of SEIU home care worker Pauline Beck. Today, Pauline and home care workers across California face pay cuts of up to 33 percent — from $12.10 an hour down to $8. Gov. Schwarzenegger’s belief that solving the state’s fiscal problems on the backs of those who take care of the most fragile among us is an absolute disgrace …. Make no mistake about it, SEIU will file a challenge and aggressively organize against this unjust and poorly thought-out policy decision.,” SEIU President Andy Stern said in a prepared statement Thursday.
Beck could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Follow Jeff Mitchell’s political journalism at BAPolitix.org