Home health-aide duties including “care, fellowship and protection” of those...

Home health-aide duties including “care, fellowship and protection” of those who can’t care for themselves that fall under the category of deemed “companionship services” don’t qualify for overtime, per federal labor laws. Credit: iStock

Seventy-five years ago next week, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act. That law, which guarantees most American workers a minimum wage and time and a half for overtime, forms the bedrock upon which the labor movement has fought to ensure that workers are treated with respect and dignity. Another victory was won in June 1963, when President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, the law requiring that women with the same job responsibilities as men earn the same wages.

A third June anniversary is not so celebratory. Six years ago this month the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Coke v. Long Island Care at Home that home care aides are excluded from the protections provided by the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Court denied Evelyn Coke, a former employee of an East Meadow-based home-care agency who had spent her life caring for others, sometimes 60 or 70 hours per week, the overtime pay she sought. In so doing, the court denied the respect and dignity owed to hardworking and compassionate caregivers -- 90 percent of whom are women.

Coke's loss at the Supreme Court highlights the gulf that continues to keep women's pay dragging behind that of men. It's not only because women are sometimes paid less for the same work; it is because women more often do the care work that isn't valued like the work of men.

The sanitation worker, usually male, takes away your trash for $15.50 per hour. The home-care aide, almost always female, takes care of your mom for $9.50 per hour. The result: Women still earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn.

The skills needed to professionally and compassionately assist someone with intimate tasks such as bathing and using the bathroom, or to understand the needs of someone who has lost the ability to speak from Alzheimer's disease, are simply not recognized.

Ellyn Kessler, who manages the care of her mother in New York City, identifies the multiple skills that her mother's home care aide brings to the job. "Not only does she do the standard tasks of dressing, bathing, toileting, and ensuring my mom is safe," says Ellyn, but "she does meal planning, food shopping, cooking. She watches to see if my mom is not feeling well or if something is not right. And she maintains her quality of life through music, dancing, taking her outdoors, involving her in conversation, laughter, taking her to the community center." Ellyn notes that her mother's Alzheimer's disease has progressed so that "at this point, I couldn't even get my mother out of bed and dressed for her day."

Providing care and assistance to frail elders and people with disabilities is our nation's fastest-growing occupation, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Today, there are about 2.5 million home health aides and personal care aides, with an anticipated 4 million needed by 2020. That's more than the number of teachers needed for grades K-12. Yet, we still treat this labor force the way we treat teenage baby sitters -- as casual neighbors who stop by in the afternoon to give grandma a snack and make sure she is safe.

The Obama administration proposed a new rule in December 2011 to finally extend the nation's most basic labor protections to home care aides. These workers would finally be guaranteed minimum wage and overtime protections, along with other rights protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act. But most important, the work of caring -- what is still so often considered "women's work" -- would be granted the dignity and respect it deserves.

President Barack Obama has made great strides in helping to guarantee fair pay for women. His first act in office was signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. By ending the exclusion of home care aides from the Fair Labor Standards Act, the president has another opportunity to end discrimination against working women. He should do so this month, taking the next step toward fair pay for women workers as we celebrate the great labor victories of the last century.

Jodi M. Sturgeon, a resident of Huntington is president of the national nonprofit PHI (formerly the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute).