Opinion: Home-care workers deserve better

Home health aid.

Home health aid. (Credit: iStock)

This month marks the seventh anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case brought by Evelyn Coke, a home-care worker who sought payment of back wages from her former East Meadow employer for unpaid overtime. The court upheld the U.S. Department of Labor's regulatory authority to exclude Coke and other home-care workers from federal minimum wage and overtime protections, under a decades-old exemption to the Fair Labor Standards Act. Today, 2 million home-care aides are excluded from these basic federal labor protections.

Fortunately, the Obama administration has addressed this injustice. After years of review by the Labor Department, including lengthy public comment, a revision to the rule was published in October that will at long last grant federal labor protections to this vast and rapidly growing workforce.

But while most regulations take effect 30 or 60 days after being published, the implementation of the revised "companionship exemption" was delayed for 15 months. The intention was to allow stakeholders time to budget for modest cost increases to cover overtime pay and on-the-job travel time.


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Now the National Association of Medicaid Directors, a voluntary professional association of state Medicaid directors, is requesting an additional 18-month delay to further consider the regulations' impact. That would mean a nearly 3-year wait since the regulation was published for these low-wage employees to achieve the basic labor protections afforded nearly every other worker in the country.

Home-care aides deserve better. Almost entirely a workforce of women -- predominantly women of color -- these workers have for far too long been asked to sacrifice their own incomes to hold down the cost of home-care services. Earning, on average, less than $10 an hour, often at part-time jobs, about half of the workforce must rely on public benefits to support their families.

At a time when many agree that the federal minimum wage is insufficient, home-care workers aren't guaranteed even that basic wage floor. And few home-care workers receive employer-sponsored health coverage or paid sick leave.

Consumers deserve better, too. Eventually most of us will need home-care services for someone we love or ourselves. At that moment, we discover how much we value the skills and compassion these aides bring to their work. But low wages mean the industry is plagued by high turnover. The worker coming to care for your mother or grandmother has most likely been on the job less than a year. And just as you get to know her, she may leave for a better-paying job, with less stress, at the local mall.

About 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 each day. Our nation will need more than a million additional home-care aides over the next decade to meet their demands for home care. Providing basic labor protections is essential to building the workforce we need.

The estimated cost of extending Fair Labor Standards Act protections -- minimum wage, overtime pay and compensation for on-the-job travel time -- to our home-care workforce is manageable: The Labor Department projects it to be just one-10th of 1 percent of the industry's $90 billion in annual revenues.

State Medicaid programs should move quickly to adapt to the new regulations. If we want and expect quality home care for every American who needs it, we can't wait any longer to take this first step to improve the quality of home-care jobs.

Jodi M. Sturgeon of Huntington is president of the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute. Christine L. Owens is executive director of the National Employment Law Project.

 

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