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As our country's population ages, more Americans are choosing home over a nursing home, and that means demand for home health aides is skyrocketing. In fact, they make up one of the fastest growing job categories in the country. At the moment, nearly a quarter of all home health aides are foreign-born. As NPR's Marisa Penaloza reports, immigrants may offer the industry its best hope of avoiding a looming labor shortage.
MARISA PENALOZA, BYLINE: In the shadow of the Capitol on a recent sunny morning, about 50 home care workers from around the country gather to lobby their legislators for basic labor rights.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Keep on coming.
PENALOZA: Most are native-born Americans, but about a quarter are documented immigrants from Africa, Latin America, India and the Caribbean. The event is organized by the Direct Care Alliance, an advocacy group.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Welcome to our national day of action to win basic labor rights for home care workers.
ELIZABETH CASTILLO: (Foreign language spoken)
PENALOZA: Elizabeth Castillo is one of them. She was born in central Mexico, and she's now a U.S. citizen. She says she's been working with an agency for 30 years in El Paso, Texas. She currently makes $7.75 an hour. Castillo says she's here because she wants people to know that caring for the elderly is an important job.
CASTILLO: (Foreign language spoken)
PENALOZA: I'm a social worker, a psychologist. I work as a mediator, she says. I wear so many hats on this job. I wish we were valued. We are more than companions.
Dowell Myers is a demographer at the University of Southern California and author of "Immigrants and Boomers."
DOWELL MYERS: Immigrant workers bring with them outstanding work attitude, but they also bring with them customs of how care is given at home in their home countries.
PENALOZA: As more boomers age at home, Myers says, they will need aides to care for them, and that's where legal immigrants could come in. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for home health aides is expected to grow by 69 percent by 2020, much faster than the average for all jobs. Myers says the country should be thinking about issuing work visas for aides.
MYERS: We're starting to wonder: Where are the workers going to come from who are going to take care of the baby boom elderly?
PENALOZA: Most aides make around minimum wage and don't get paid vacation or sick days, and almost half of them get food stamps or other public benefits. Paul Hogan is director for Home Instead, one of the largest home care agencies nationwide. About a quarter of his current employees are documented immigrants.
PAUL HOGAN: We have about 65,000 caregivers now, and we're going to need to double that number in the next five to seven years.
PENALOZA: Hogan says legal immigrants are vital for his industry to grow. Michael Elsas agrees. Elsas is president of Cooperative Home Care. His agency has quadrupled in the last 10 years. For the industry to grow, he argues, salaries need to higher.
MICHAEL ELSAS: We value the fact that people come and pick up our garbage every single morning. How do I know we value that? Because we pay those people more than we pay the worker who takes care of our elderly population.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
PENALOZA: Like other agencies, Cooperative Home Care runs training in English and Spanish, graduating about 500 aides a year. But USC demographer Dowell Myers worries the country isn't prepared for the thousands of boomers that will retire every year.
MYERS: The clock is ticking, and this is really the calm before the storm right here.
PENALOZA: We know how many boomers will need home care. Myers says it's in everyone's best interest to invest in that workforce. Marisa Penaloza , NPR News.