There are more than 18 million healthcare workers in the United States; 80% of them are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While women make up the vast majority of home health care workers, they are a minority in the C-Suite. Only 40% of the industry’s key decision-makers are female.

Homecare is a tough space to succeed in, and while org charts may not reflect it, this industry is loaded with strong, determined women doing incredibly meaningful work — they simply don’t get the recognition they deserve!

Here at HHAeXchange, we’d like to take one small step towards changing that. ‘Extraordinary Women in Homecare’ is a series of feature articles designed to celebrate women who bring strength, passion, and creativity to their roles in the homecare industry.

We recently spoke with Shona Eakin, CEO of Voices for Independence, an organization based in Erie, Pennsylvania, that strives to empower people with disabilities and promote independent living. With the majority of its staff being individuals with disabilities, Voices also serves as an advocacy group for its consumers and workers. Read on to learn why Shona is passionate about homecare, how her agency has adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic, and why she never gives up.

Why did you choose to enter the homecare industry?

This is a really personal issue. I wouldn’t be able to do a job if I didn’t have people to help me every day. I live this experience and I know how vital these services are. I want to make it so that people with disabilities, like myself, have as much opportunity in their lives as possible.

One of the reasons Voices for Independence became a homecare agency is so that we could give recipients of those services more control over how their services are rendered. We are a very nontraditional homecare agency in that we believe that people should use their attendant services as a tool to enhance their independence. When we train our attendants, we talk about them being an extension of the consumer’s arms and legs. If they put themselves in their shoes, and think about what they would need if they were not able to do it for themselves, what kinds of things would they want done?

What else makes Voices for Independence different from other homecare agencies?

We’re unique in that the people who work for us are also people impacted by the issue we work to address — many of us live with disabilities and are using homecare services ourselves. At Voices, we put the people who receive the services in the driver’s seat as much as possible, giving them the maximum amount of control that they can have over their lives and the way their services are rendered.

We also believe that all attendants have a voice and to that end, we have even gone so far as to unionize those direct care workers who are working in the field. Our name is very fitting to how we operate.

As a woman with a disability, what barriers did you have to overcome to get to the position you’re in today?

I had been working in the independent living movement for about seven years when the position of CEO at Voices became open. While I had been in leadership roles before, I was never a CEO. But I took a leap of faith, and I did so under the mentorship of other women who were CEOs who encouraged me to take that leap. And 20 years later, here we are.

I think that being a woman and being a person with a disability is a double-edged sword. In my career, there have been many people who have underestimated me in my role. But it gives me a unique perspective on the lives of the people we serve, as well as the people who work for me, because it affects us all so personally.

In the nonprofit professional world, it’s hard for women to break through in leadership roles. We are very often underestimated. But I’m blessed to now be mentoring other young women who are CEOs of organizations like mine.

What’s some advice you give to the women you mentor?

Don’t ever give up, be true to yourself, and be willing to surround yourself with people who support your mission.

You don’t necessarily have to know everything. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for my excellent staff. They have done a tremendous job responding to the needs of the people we serve, and to the direct care workers who serve them. And now, through this COVID-19 crisis, we have risen to an even higher standard.

How have you adapted your business during COVID-19?

It became very clear to us as an organization that we have a lot of people who depend on us on a daily basis. We wanted to make sure that while we were supporting our office staff, our direct care workers felt supported as well. Joi has been a leader in organizing those efforts.

Joi Arrington, Personal Attendant Supervisor, Voices for Independence: The funder of a grant we had prior to COVID-19 allowed us to transfer the funds from that grant to pandemic relief, so that has enabled us to support our direct care workers who are affected directly by this pandemic. From day care centers being closed to transportation issues, they’re running into all kinds of crises right now, but they still have a job to do. They fill out a short application, and once approved, we can provide them assistance with rent or utilities payments, so that they can still maintain other vital needs such as childcare, in a time like this. Our direct care workers go above and beyond, and we want to give back to them in as many ways as we can.

How are you staying connected with your staff and consumers during COVID-19?

We’re supporting both the consumers we serve and the people who serve them, the direct care workers, with a lot of virtual events. I’m going to have my staff tell you more about that, as they’re really the people who are driving these efforts – I’m just the lucky person who gets to say, “Yes!”

Tiffany Frey, Activities Coordinator, Voices for Independence: Here at Voices, we have a huge group of consumers whom we see on a daily basis. They come to Voices not only for the skills that we share with them, but for the community. Many people live by themselves and already feel isolated, so Voices is somewhere for them to go, somewhere for them to be.

When we heard that all facilities would be closing due to COVID-19, we had to figure out how we could still reach them, because coming to Voices is such an important part of their days. In a moment’s notice, we decided that we would move as many of our programs as possible to our Facebook group. We worked out a schedule and were up and running by the next morning with live workouts, arts and crafts sessions, cooking classes, group discussions, sports talks, and more. We also set up a peer counseling program, where people can comment live or message our counselors privately. We tried to create the same community we have in person, virtually. It helps to maintain a sense of normalcy during this difficult time.

In what ways has COVID-19 impacted your staff and consumers differently than it has the average person?

There’s always a disconnect between the supports and services that exist for the average person and those that exist for people who have significant disabilities. COVID-19 has highlighted the fact that people with disabilities are at greater risk, because while the president, the governor in Pennsylvania, and the governors all over the country are telling people to socially isolate and distance themselves to stay safe, people with disabilities who need support can’t do that. As an individual with a disability, you open your door every day to people who come to support you, and you just hope that they’re practicing social distancing so that you can be as protected as possible.

What other challenges is your agency facing during COVID-19?

Our organization spans 27 counties, and we have approximately 1,100 attendants. There’s a significant PPE shortage, as the system is slow to produce what healthcare and homecare workers need. We hear a lot on the news about nurses and doctors needing PPE, and I think sometimes the forgotten group are the other workers who are on the front lines — the homecare workers going into people’s houses to care for them and keep them from having to go into the hospital or a long-term care facility with this virus.

What do you think are some of the misconceptions facing homecare agencies?

I think people undervalue the service provided. People don’t really even think about it until something happens to them and they’re faced with the question, “Am I going to spend time in a long-term care facility or nursing facility away from my loved ones, or am I going to be able to have someone come into my home and help me live the life that I’ve always lived?”

I wish more attention was paid to the vital, necessary work that homecare workers do. The fact remains: You can serve on average three people in the community for the price of one person in a long-term care facility.

In the national news, people are starting to see that COVID-19 is hitting nursing homes very, very hard, so we’re working hard as an agency to help those who want to go home during this time to be able to go home, even throughout this current pandemic.

What do you see as the biggest trends facing the industry?

More people are recognizing they want to stay home, and more people are aging into needing these services, so we are starting to get more recognition. I think that all states across the U.S. are trying to find ways to save money, and they’re starting to recognize that home and community-based services are a way to do that, because long-term care services and supports in institutions are so expensive.

One of the biggest barriers to making this system a success is paying the attendants the wage they deserve. As an advocacy organization, we’re fighting to give homecare workers a meaningful, livable wage. These people are on the front lines, taking care of people, and they’re making as much as someone working at Target or McDonald’s, and maybe not even getting equal benefits. As Americans, we need to make our homecare services a priority.

Why is technology important to the success of your agency?

Technology has made the job of homecare easier. We love our homecare management platform, HHAeXchange. It has really helped us better serve our consumers. I like anything that makes my staff’s lives easier and HHAeXchange has done that for us.

You’ve conquered so many challenges throughout your career, and in your personal life. What keeps you going strong?

It’s knowing that we make a difference, and that we give people control over how they function throughout the day, and that they should be able to use that tool, that attendant, the way that best fits their lives. It’s about keeping people out of institutions, keeping people free.

I can’t give up, because if I do, then my life and other lives will be dictated by policies and procedures set by organizations that may not value my independence as much as I do. Every decision I make is dictated by the question, “How will this affect the life of someone I serve?”

What’s next for Voices for Independence?

I had always wanted to make a way for our programs and services to be virtual, and for years we talked about putting our classes online, and making things happen so that people who can’t get to our offices on a regular basis can still participate. COVID-19 pushed us to create that system so we can keep making those things happen.

I’m super excited about the future because I think that we have so much potential to reach people that haven’t been reached before. We don’t give up, we don’t stop, because our job is to help people become as independent as they can possibly be. That work never ends. As we change and grow as a society, people with disabilities are becoming more and more a part of everyday life, so we’ll be here to support that as long as people want us to be.