Watts: Home care workers deserve fair wages

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S.E. Watts lives in Rockville Centre.

 

Since I left home to attend Hofstra University in 1997, I have relied on personal care aides to help me manage the basic tasks of daily living -- bathing, dressing, food shopping, preparing meals, housekeeping and errands like getting to the post office.

Today, I also depend on a personal care aide to assist me with getting up and out for work in the morning, as well as with various errands throughout the day. My aide also assists me with my evening meal and personal care before the day draws to a close.

The aides who've helped me over the years have made an immeasurable difference in what I've been able to accomplish while living with physical limitations. They make it possible for me to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector, helping seniors and people with disabilities access medical treatments and prescription drugs.

Like most working people in America, I am guaranteed minimum wage and time and a half for overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act. But my personal care aides are exempt from these basic federal labor protections.

These workers -- who provide the critical long-term services and support that make it possible for me and other people who live with disabilities to lead full and independent lives -- are considered to be mere "companions" to the "elderly and infirm," the equivalent of a teenage baby-sitter.

When the Fair Labor Standards Act was revised in 1974 to include domestic workers such as chauffeurs, gardeners and full-time nannies, it excluded home care workers under the "companionship exemption." The exemption was intended to apply to casual situations, like a neighbor coming to sit with the elderly woman next door. Today, it is a loophole that allows the thriving $84-billion home care industry to keep labor costs low.

The late Evelyn Coke, a home care aide and Queens resident employed by an East Meadow-based home care agency -- who never received overtime pay for working more than a 40-hour week -- challenged the companionship exemption in 2007. She took her case to the Supreme Court but lost. The court said that it was not in its jurisdiction to update the companionship exemption, though the Department of Labor had the authority to do so.

Finally, on Dec. 15, President Barack Obama announced that the labor department was proposing a revised rule to extend federal minimum wage and overtime guarantees to home care workers. The public has the opportunity to voice its opinion on this proposal at companionshipexemption.org, during an official comment period that has been extended until March 21.

Most long-term care is covered by public funds. Personal care aides are skilled professionals and not baby-sitters. They perform physically demanding jobs that also require knowing how to be personable but not domineering, caring but able to foster independence, communicating well, and performing intimate tasks while being sensitive to clients' moods.

These workers are the backbone of the home care system, yet they are undervalued and do not get the respect that they deserve. Updating the companionship exemption would be a very good start.

According to PHI, a nonprofit advocacy group for the direct-care workforce, personal and home care aides earn an average of $16,600 annually, and about half depend on public assistance like food stamps for their own families. One-third lack health insurance despite a high rate of occupational injuries.

Under

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New York State laws, home care workers usually earn more than minimum wage, but their overtime pay is calculated at time and a half of the minimum wage, not the workers' base hourly wage. This change at the federal level will help put a few more essential dollars in the pocket of these essential workers.

This isn't just the right thing to do, it's the smart thing: Fair pay will help ensure that people with disabilities and the rapidly growing elderly population have access to support services at home and in the community, so that we can lead full and meaningful lives.

While Evelyn Coke won't see this grave labor injustice undone, her legacy will be carried forward when 2 million home care aides are finally treated fairly under the law.

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