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A home care worker and SEIU 775 member Theresa G. working with a client. (Paul Joseph Brown Photo)

In a dozen years, 1 in 5 Americans will be retirement age or older. Many will be in good health and able to live independently, but increasing numbers will need assistance preparing meals, washing and dressing themselves and taking care of their homes. The people who step in to help those living with physical and mental challenges are home care workers.

“This is a profession that is growing and there is going to be a huge need,” said Merissa Clyde, managing director of SEIU 775 Benefits Group’s Health Benefits Trust, a group serving more than 49,000 home care workers in the Pacific Northwest.

Merissa Clyde, managing director of SEIU 775 Benefits Group (Photo courtesy of Merissa Clyde)

Home care is often stressful, emotional work and those in the field suffer higher rates of depression and anxiety than those in other jobs, Clyde said. This sort of lower-wage job — workers earn $15 an hour to start in Washington and bump up to more than $18 for more experienced caregivers — is typically associated with less generous health care plans. But that model wasn’t going to work if the union was going to keep workers healthy and ensure that the jobs were sustainable.

We realized that “our utilization of mental health benefits was low, but our need was high,” Clyde said.

Workers weren’t connecting with care due to the stigma around mental health issues, the challenge of leaving some clients alone and long waits for getting an appointment with a health care provider (on average in the U.S. it takes 45 days to see a mental health clinician).

The SEIU 775 Benefits Group turned to technology for a solution. The group connected with Ginger.io, a San Francisco-based company that provides digital mental health services through an app. Now the caregivers can access coaches 24 hours a day by text to treat their mental health needs. The coaches, with assistance from AI tools, give workers immediate support. If the person has more complex issues, the coaches can connect them with licensed therapists and psychiatrists who are accessed through video conferences. The wait time for these appointments is four days.

“They are able to get care in a much more convenient manner,” said Karan Singh, co-founder and chief operating officer of Ginger.io. And the app is able to shake off some of the stigma around mental health troubles. “It doesn’t feel like medicine, it doesn’t feel clinical.”

Ginger.io provides mental health support through online coaches and video conferences with therapists and psychiatrists. (Ginger.io website)

Employers and organizations pay for the services and offer them to employees and members. Coaching is free to employees, and Ginger.io telemedicine services usually require a standard copay. The SEIU 775 Benefits Group is covering the copay for its members.

The SEIU 775 workers have had access to Ginger.io for a year now as a pilot project. A couple hundred people have tried it, Clyde said, and the response has been positive. The homecare workers using the app gave it and Ginger.io services favorable reviews, with 35 percent of users who experience moderate to severe depression reporting a “clinically significant reduction” of their symptoms.

One of the caregivers reported that, “it helped her feel like she had a safety net of people who can help her right at her fingertips,” said Clyde.

Over the coming year, the benefits group is expanding the use of the service and hopes to reach more of their members. Singh said he’s excited to serve this segment of the workforce with Ginger.io, which launched six years ago.

“When we started people thought this [service] was for people in high-paying jobs,” he said.

The success with the in-home caregivers shows that doesn’t need to be the case. “This can serve a wide spectrum of the population,” Singh said.

Editor’s note: Karan Singh is not related to Steve Singh or the Singh Family Foundation, which provides support for GeekWire’s Impact Series.

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