Editorial: Home care workers win basic labor rights

Published Sept. 27, 2013

The women, and it is mostly women, who are trusted to provide care to America's elderly and disabled are finally getting some dignity for themselves. The Obama administration has made good on a promise to bring home care workers under federal wage and hour law. The announcement earlier this month was greeted by cheers from workers and complaints from the $80 billion industry that employs them. But granting home care workers basic labor rights is fair and socially beneficial. It will provide a better living for low-skilled workers and stabilize a workforce that suffers from notoriously high turnover.

For nearly the last 40 years, home health care workers have been wrongly categorized as "companionship services" similar to baby-sitters, which removed them from protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Home aides are not glorified baby-sitters. They do jobs that help seniors and the disabled stay in their homes. Without this essential and growing workforce of nearly 2 million workers, more people would end up in institutionalized care and nursing homes. Home care aides provide their clients with cooked meals, help them bathe and shop, transport them to doctor appointments and perform other chores that infirm people can no longer accomplish on their own. The only reason the companion designation has stuck around so long is that the politically powerful home care franchises wanted it that way.

Under the new federal rule, home care aides will be covered by the nation's leading wage and hour law that will grant them federal minimum wage and overtime protections. Most home care workers already make at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour ($7.79 per hour in Florida), but the promise of overtime pay of time-and-a-half after 40 hours per week could be a substantial added benefit, considering the job often demands long hours. The rule change doesn't go into effect until January 2015, which gives employers and state Medicaid programs plenty of time to adjust.

The people in these jobs are a vulnerable group of low-wage, service workers. Ninety-two percent are women, and about 40 percent are black and Hispanic. Many are immigrants. These are often single mothers raising families, but the wages they take home are so low that 40 percent of them qualify for government safety net benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid.

The industry claims the added cost of overtime pay will limit access to in-home care and land the elderly in nursing homes instead. It warns that home care workers will lose out when agencies cut back on hours rather than award overtime. The evidence suggests otherwise. Fifteen states already provide minimum wage and overtime protections to home care aides. No negative impacts on workers' hours or on the utilization of in-home services have resulted.

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The rule change recognizes in-home care as a real job. This raises the job's stature, makes recruitment into the field easier and helps retains the best care providers. That will be good for economy and for the elderly and their families who rely so heavily on this care.