Extend Labor Law Protection to Home Care WorkersFebruary 20, 2012
The Department of Labor hopes to rectify the exclusion of nearly 2 million home care workers from minimum wage and overtime protection. It’s a long-time injustice – and one that all of us can help end.
Seventy-four years ago, when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, Congress agreed to leave out agricultural, domestic and personal care workers. The workers who filled those jobs were predominantly female and people of color. In 1974, Congress amended the law to include some of those previously excluded. But it explicitly kept out those it designated as babysitters and “companions” — including aides employed by outside agencies hired by families to help with caregiving.
Organizations like the Direct Care Workers Association and the National Domestic Workers Alliance have been working for years to update the law. They were aided by an extraordinary woman named Evelyn Coke, who for more than 30 years worked in homes helping the aging or those with severe disabilities live with dignity without ever herself having the dignity of minimum wage or overtime protection.
Evelyn Coke filed suit, with the help of the Service Employees International Union. Her case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the justices voted 9 to 0 against her. The issue was not justice or fairness, but rather whether the Department of Labor had the authority to decide who’s covered.
They do have that authority.
And now, finally, under the leadership of Secretary Hilda Solis, the department has issued regulations to end the exclusion. The public is able to provide comments until February 27.
Lobbyists for the multi-billion home care industry are mobilizing opposition, arguing that the change would ruin the industry and cost workers their jobs. However, 21 states and D. C. already provide some minimum wage and overtime coverage of home care workers. These states are doing just fine.
In order for the changes to be implemented, we must demonstrate strong public support.
As the National Employment Law Project points out, the result of the exclusion has been to suppress wages for this workforce. Instead of being a way out of poverty, employment in the home health care field is often another form of poverty. The low pay and lack of labor protections, along with lack of paid sick days, drives up turnover and increases costs for employers who need to replace and train new workers.
More than 92 percent of those affected are women, nearly half are people of color; many are primary breadwinners. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, home health care aides earn about $21,000 a year and many lack health insurance.
When she proposed the changes, Sec. Solis framed them as part of her department’s commitment “to fighting for good jobs for everyone, jobs that enable workers to earn a living wage, afford health insurance and save for retirement. The services provided by in-home health care providers aren’t just professional; they’re personal. And for millions of American families, they’re indispensible. That’s why it’s so important to ensure that they receive the same job protections available to the majority of working Americans.”