Home Care Workers Deserve a Fair Wage
If you don’t have someone near and dear to you who currently relies on the assistance of a home care worker, chances are you will someday. Indeed, at some point, you yourself may depend on a worker to help you with basic needs and to remember to take medications. Until this past Thursday, nearly 2 million home care workers have been excluded from federal overtime and minimum wage protections due to a “loophole” placing them, as Think Progress puts it, “in the same ‘companion’ category as babysitters.” As of last week, President Obama and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said that the U.S. Department of Labor will proceed with amending the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
It’s a change that has been needed for 37 years. Right now, six million of the 40 million Americans who are over 65 years old rely on some sort of assistance so they can remain in their homes rather than being placed in a nursing home or other institutional setting; their numbers are expected to double by 2030 as the Baby Boomers age. Many individuals with disabilities also rely on care workers so they can live in their homes. 92 percent of these workers are women, nearly 30 percent are African-American, 12 percent are Latino and nearly 40 percent rely on Medicaid and food stamps and other public benefits. As Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis says in a statement:
“The vast majority of these workers are women, many of whom serve as the primary breadwinner for their families. This proposed regulation would ensure that their work is properly classified so they receive appropriate compensation and that employers who have been treating these workers fairly are no longer at a competitive disadvantage.”
The FLSA was established in 1974. At that time, as the New York Times notes, the “home care industry was in its infancy” and “companions” were exempted from the FLSA. As a story by Colorlines publisher Rinku Sen reveals, looking back at how labors laws came to be in the context of racial history suggests why such “exemptions” were made:
The Roosevelt administration passed many enduring economic reforms in the 1930’s, including the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act. The latter made it easier for workers to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers. Domestic and farmworkers, however, were explicitly excluded from both laws, a deal that allowed Roosevelt to gather the votes of Southern, white congress members, among others. At the time, 95 percent of domestic workers were black women in the South. Most agricultural workers were Black, Filipino or Mexican. [my emphasis]
Labor protections were expanded to include farmworkers in 1966. But the unjust conditions of home care workers only came to national attention in 2007, when the Supreme Court ruled that Evelyn Coke, a New York home care worker who worked as much as 70 hours a week, was entitled to overtime pay under the current law. To change the rules, Congress or the Department of Labor would have to act.
According to industry figures, home care workers currently about $8.50 to $12 an hour, compared with the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Republican lawmakers and industry figures have criticized the proposed changes, contending that they will drive up costs and mean that agencies will reduce the hours of aides who work more than 40 hours a week and hire additional workers. But Labor Secretary Solis says that “any increased costs would be modest” and pointed out that the changes will “level the playing field for staffing agencies, who will no longer be pressured to underpay their competitors on wages to gain an edge.”
My late grandmother and my late in-laws all were able to live in their homes for as long as possible (in the case of my grandmother, until she passed away) as a result of the care of home care workers. It is not easy work. Changing the FLSA to provide home care workers with a fair wage is an important step to make sure that they are appropriately compensated for performing the essential service of assisting the elderly and individuals with disabilities in the familiar setting of their own homes.
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