For 37 years, home health care aides who are hired to look after elderly or sick people and help them live at home have been shut out of basic federal labor protections. Their hard, physical, low-paid work has been considered on a par with that of a babysitter and exempt from federal minimum wage laws and overtime rules. Finally, that is about to change. This month, the Obama administration has proposed regulations to bring home care workers under the Fair Labors Standards Act. The move is long overdue.
There are nearly 2 million in-home care workers in the United States, one of the fastest growing job sectors in the nation. Aides may feed, clothe and bathe clients as well as provide basic health services and assistance with physical therapy. Their ranks are more than 90 percent female, and nearly 40 percent rely on public assistance such as food stamps and Medicaid, according to the White House. By bringing these workers under federal labor protections, they will be guaranteed federal minimum wages and, even more importantly, a time-and-a-half premium if they work more than 40 hours in a week. Twenty nine states, including Florida, provide home care aides no added state protections for overtime or minimum wages.
Current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour and, according to the industry, home care workers generally earn between $8.50 and $12 an hour. But this change is important even if it won't boost hourly pay for most aides. First, the overtime provisions will give workers, some of whom regularly put in 60-hour weeks or more, the right to be paid fairly for those extra hours. And second, establishing a pay floor under which staffing agencies may not go protects agencies from being sharply undercut by competitors.
Republican lawmakers and business groups are opposed to the change and are fighting to get the rules modified before they are finalized. Opponents claim that the cost of providing service would rise and that the proposals might cause staffing agencies to cut back on each worker's hours to avoid paying overtime. Of course, those general arguments could be made for any worker in any industry. There is nothing new in Republicans opposing an expansion of minimum wage laws and other labor protections. But as has been well established from many decades of experience, those laws provide a vital shield against exploitation and poverty.
The administration's move modifies the Labor Department's 1974 rule exempting "companionship" workers from fair labor standards. The original rule was intended to apply to babysitters and companion work for the elderly, not a cadre of professional caregivers, many of whom are the primary breadwinners for their family. The administration's action should bring some holiday cheer to home care workers everywhere, who have had too little political influence to obtain the labor protections that are rightly theirs.