By Ai-jen Poo, co-director, Caring Across Generations and executive director, National Domestic Workers Alliance
When Congress expanded minimum wage requirements and overtime protections to “domestic service” workers in 1974, it excluded certain classes of care workers –including all care workers for seniors and people with disabilities — from those protections by defining everyone as “companions.” While the service sector has expanded and evolved dramatically ever since, these regulations have remained unchanged. Today, many full-time elder caregivers and home health aides are not required to be paid a minimum wage or receive overtime pay under federal law. The process of changing these unjust rules is under way, but President Obama needs to show decisive leadership to complete the process quickly. And just as importantly, the President should make education and enforcement of any revised regulations a top priority for the Department of Labor, which must pay increased attention to this important, growing workforce.
2: Stop deporting care workers and their families
According to his own account, President Obama has deported more immigrants than President George W. Bush. And so, despite recent executive changes to allow some young immigrants to apply for “deferred status” and remain temporarily in the country, millions of immigrant families have been torn apart by deportations. This includes care workers — the men and women on whom many of us rely to drive seniors to appointments and help lift people with disabilities into their wheelchairs. And this includes the immigrant parents of citizen children, dedicated parents who support their families economically and emotionally. We should be rewarding caregivers in our country with decent wages and basic rights, not punishing them with dehumanizing deportations. Deportations deprive our most vulnerable citizens of their caregivers. Deportations deprive our economy of workers. And deportations deprive families of their loved ones. President Obama can stop these deportations by executive order today.
#3: Make representative appointments to long-term care commission
Finally, in its fiscal cliff deal, Congress created a new commission to develop a plan for improving the financing and delivery of long-term care services. President Obama gets to appoint three of the 15 commissioners (the others will be appointed by Democratic and Republican leadership in the House and Senate) and the timeline to do so is short — the commission must be appointed within a month, to deliver its recommendations by the middle of this year. President Obama should use this as an opportunity to learn from as many stakeholders as possible about what is needed. Let’s have seniors, people with disabilities and care workers together at the table shaping America’s long-term care strategies.
These are the people suffering most under the current economic conditions. And incidentally, they've been among the most loyal of the president's supporters. Unlike tax policy or the debt ceiling, here the President can take unilateral action and make an enormous difference without expending much political capital.
It’s a new year, Mr. President, and time for a new chapter.
Ai-jen Poo is co-director of Caring Across Generations, a national coalition of 200 advocacy organizations that promote quality care and support and a dignified quality of life for all Americans. She is also executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and was named one of Time magazine's Most Influential People in the World.