Profile of Ethel Richardson: IHSS Worker, Consumer, and Public Authority Board Member

Ethel Richardson at a PA party.

Ethel Richardson at a PA party.

Although Ethel Richardson struggles daily with the effects of emphysema, the 67-year-old retiree, who’s the former president and current vice president of the San Francisco IHSS Public Authority Governing Body, also makes time to serve on the Public Authority’s Finance; Operations and Coordination; Program, Planning and Services; and Policy Committees. When asked why she devotes so much of herself to IHSS work, Ethel explains: “I have experienced firsthand what these workers go through. I am about improving life for IHSS workers…and the consumers. It’s a joy for me.”

Indeed, Ethel Richardson has spent most of her adult life caring for others, in one health-care capacity or another. Born in Hudson, New York, in the Catskills, she moved to Providence, Rhode Island, when she was five years old and lived there for the next 25 years. A high school graduate, she worked as a psychiatric aide in the geriatric ward of the Rhode Island State Hospital for three years before moving to the Bay Area with her daughter, Dina, in 1966.

Ethel fondly recalls her first job with IHSS: “I was a homecare worker for an elderly diabetic woman…back around ‘76. I did her cleaning, cooking, and accompanied her on walks and to her doctor appointments. I was with her a couple of years until she passed away.”

After that period, Ethel remembers working for a number of private agencies and then getting her CNA certification in the early 1990s, close to the time she returned to IHSS and began working with another elderly client who needed someone to go grocery shopping with her and “to the doctor’s.”

In the early ‘90s, Ethel also became an active member of Health Care Worker’s Local 250, SEIU. She volunteered with the union for eight years, helping to plan meetings, organize rallies, and boost membership until she retired in 1999. She was an active presence at the Worker Center, where she answered phones and questions. Homecare workers would call in, and she would relay information concerning their paychecks, lodging grievances, joining the credit union, etc.

In 1995, Ethel was chosen as the first homecare worker representative to serve on the original Public Authority Board. With PECC’s IHSS Task Force and other groups, Ethel had met with the Board of Supervisors to advocate for the creation of the Public Authority. In addition to being a founding board member, she was the first worker screened and accepted onto the Public Authority’s Central Registry.

Ethel’s longtime desire to help IHSS workers get better wages and improve their quality of life dominates her recounting of events. “I was very enthusiastic about those things,” she says. “When they got their wages increased and their health benefits,” she smiles, “it was a thrill for me.” She recalls the ceremony at City Hall that announced these landmark changes “as one of the high points of my life.” However, she cautions that there’s still work to be done: “Two principal items—paid time-off and retirement. Not yet. Not yet.”

Ethel stresses that she’s equally passionate about the consumer and “not just because I’m one now myself.” She has always been “in support of the consumer. Compassion and sympathy. That’s why I started out in geriatrics. I hate to see a senior citizen mistreated.”

Going from a caregiver to a care recipient is, in Ethel’s view, “kind of an emotional thing. It’s strange to be getting services and not giving them.” She adds that in her current condition, she understands “a lot more about what they go through, with their Medi-Care, Medi-Cal, cutbacks, paying for their medicine. Really just getting their needs met. It’s a struggle.”

On her performance as a Board member, she confesses, “Sometimes, I’m a little quiet. But when I speak out, I have something to say.” She views her role as primarily being a source of information. “I can bring things to their attention,” she states. “Information they can use. Not only to improve the Board itself but also to improve conditions for the workers and the consumers.” In the near future, Ethel would like to see the Consumer Peer Mentor program implemented.

Ethel is proud of the progress she’s both witnessed and helped make possible during the past eight years: “We’ve really made a name for ourselves. Other Public Authorities look up to us and try to follow what we do. We’re the model.”

Ethel acknowledges, somewhat wistfully, that this is her last term on the Board. “I am already looking for someone qualified to replace me,” she says. Unfortunately, anyone who knows Ethel knows “someone qualified to replace” her will be hard to find.

 (Editor's Note: Ethel Richardson retired from the Public Authority Governing Body in 2005 after a decade of service. She returned as a Board member in 2009 but passed away unexpectedly in January 2012.)