They swap out bed pans, tend to wounds, and assist with every facet of day-to-day life — sometimes even living with their patients. They’re home health care aides, and they are a crucial resource in caring for America’s sick, elderly, and disabled — and they do it all for an average wage of $9.70 per hour, less than the mean hourly compensation for lifeguards, food servers, and dry cleaners.

That reality will continue to affect more and more Americans, as growth in this particular portion of the health care industry has been fast — and it’s only going to get faster. Job growth in the American health care sector doubled from January to February, led by strong gains in ambulatory care givers, hospital workers, and home health aides. And as CNN Money points out , an uptick in America’s elderly population — fueled by aging Baby Boomers — will lead to an explosion in demand for such workers’ services.

But due to a loophole in labor protection laws, home health aides often make less than minimum wage , earning about $20,000 per year. And that’s just the full-time workers. Part-time health aides, who make up most of the profession, make even less and don’t receive benefits — leading to a sadly ironic situation in which health workers are often forced to forgo their own health care and turn to government safety net programs :

Under these conditions, it’s no surprise then that about 40% of home aides rely on public assistance, such as Medicaid and food stamps, just to get by.

“What you have is a situation here where the people that we count on to care for our families cannot take care of their own, and that’s got to change,” said Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. […]

A recent study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates immigrants make up 28% of home health care workers, and of those, one in five are undocumented.

The Census Bureau has found that 53% of home health aides are minorities. By their calculations, it is the single most common job for black women, who alone represent nearly a third of the entire profession.

This is part of the reason workers are undervalued and underpaid, say worker advocates like Eileen Boris, a professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The fact that the populations who are already disproportionately affected by poverty and poor access to essential services are turning to such low-wage, low-benefit jobs is a sad reflection on both America’s economic recovery and holes in the social safety net. In fact, most of the jobs added to the U.S. economy since the recession ended pay low wages.

Under Obamacare, home health aides will serve as essential foot soldiers in the fight to make America’s health care system more efficient. The Obama Administration has been pushing to revamp labor protections for home health aides, but that effort has not enjoyed much success so far.