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Honor Evelyn Coke: No Delay in Protections for Home Care Workers

September 29, 2014

by Ellen Bravo

For more than three decades, Evelyn Coke took care of elderly and disabled patients at homes throughout New York City. She got folks in and out of chairs and tubs, kept them fed and clean and comfortable. She made sure they had their medications. For many she was a lifeline to the outside world.

Evelyn CokeYet because she did for a living what women do for free in the home, Evelyn Coke’s work was always under-valued. For 40 hours of work every week, she was poorly paid. And for the many hours she worked beyond that, she wasn’t paid at all. No laws were violated in the process.

Coke, a Jamaican immigrant and mother of five, was one of more than a million home care workers excluded from protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Seventy-five years ago, when the legislation was passed, Congress agreed to omit agricultural, domestic and personal care workers. They were, then as now, predominantly female and disproportionately people of color.

In 1974, Congress amended the law to include some of those workers. But it explicitly kept out those it designated as babysitters and “companions.”

Evelyn Coke reminds me of Mildred, the domestic worker protagonist in Alice Childress’s Like One of the Family. Like Mildred, Evelyn Coke clearly valued her work and thought the world couldn’t function without it. She just wanted to be treated fairly—decent wages, a workplace that was clean and safe, time for rest and enjoyment.

So Coke decided to sue the home care agency for the overtime she’d been denied. Later the Service Employees International Union represented her. The issue was simple justice. Her case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the issue there was not justice but power: Did the Department of Labor have the authority to decide whether to cover home care workers? All nine justices agreed they did.

Unlike Lilly Ledbetter’s case, this one did not rally most women’s groups. The bill named after her did not garner huge attention in Congress or the media. Evelyn Coke did not campaign at the side of Barack Obama; by then she was in a wheelchair as the result of a car accident. And she will not be able to celebrate a victory that will come with this new administration. She died in July of 2009. According to her son, a serious bedsore—the kind her skills had treated for so many others—hastened her death.

Ending the Exclusion

Evelyn Coke made a difference in the lives of many patients. And her courageous stand will make a difference for all caregivers. In June 2009 Senator Tom Harkin, who earlier introduced a bill to reverse the DOL’s rules, sent a letter signed by 14 other senators and 37 House members asking then Secretary Hilda Solis to end the exclusion of home care workers in the Fair Labor Standards Act.

“Home care, increasingly, has become not casual work performed by a friend or family member but a full-time regular type of employment,” they wrote. “It is critical that these professional workers, who provide essential services to our nation’s elderly and disabled, have the same right to minimum wage and overtime pay as enjoyed by other workers.…[A]s our population ages, the demand …will only increase.  Yet, there is already a shortage of qualified home care workers and there is a high turnover in the field.”

I had met Secretary Solis a few months before that and we talked about Evelyn Coke. “That’s just the kind of worker I want the Department of Labor to speak for,” she told me. In response to the Harkin letter, she said that she intended to “fulfill the department’s mandate to protect America’s workers, including home health care aides, who work demanding schedules and receive low wages.” She proposed a new rule. Current Secretary Tom Perez likewise supported it. And finally a year ago, the department announced the rule would be implemented in January 2015.

Now those who opposed the change are trying to delay its implementation. They argue that fulfilling that mandate would cost too much, echoing the agency that employed Evelyn Coke to say paying workers overtime would cause “tremendous and unsustainable losses.”  

Justice for the Evelyn Cokes of this world will have a price tag. But states that already guarantee minimum wage and overtime to home care workers are doing fine. And the cost of injustice—poverty for full-time caregivers in one of the fastest growing fields of employment and one with a large turnover—is much higher, for all of us.

This household aide needs to become a household name. Let us honor Evelyn Coke posthumously as she should have been honored every day in her work by ensuring no further delay in implementation of the Department of Labor rule.

An earlier version of this post was published by the Women’s Media Center August 2009.

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