Caring for those who care for America

June 11th of this year marked the 4th anniversary of Ms. Coke’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, which ruled that it was up to Congress or the Department of Labor to end the exemption of home care workers from basic labor protections.

As with many home care workers, Ms. Coke believed that she had been treated unfairly by her employer over the course of her career. She often worked 70 or more hours a week, earning less than minimum wage, which was $5.15 in 2002. In an industry where the demand for personal care of the elderly and disabled is an around the clock job, Ms. Coke would often work multiple 24 hour shifts in a row, never receiving time and a half for overtime. Sadly, four years after Ms. Coke’s case was struck down by the Supreme Court, her experience is being repeated by home care workers across the United States.

The reality is most Americans will require some form of long-term care in their later years, and statistics show that those individuals overwhelmingly prefer to receive that care in their own home. This is a fair desire and one that I certainly share. Unfortunately, the difficulty of recruiting and retaining workers in this field will likely leave this desire unfulfilled for many aging baby boomers.

As the home-and community-based service system struggles to attract and retain the dedicated and skilled workers necessary to meet the growing demands of consumers, the system moves closer and closer to a workforce crisis unlike any other previously experienced in modern American healthcare. New and existing workers considering careers in the healthcare field often pursue other options in the face of meager wages and generally non-existent benefits provided to most home care workers.

As is often the case in our current system, the most vulnerable among us are forced to settle for decreasing quality of care, move to nursing facilities, and in some cases, go without care all together. In many other cases, families are faced with impossible decisions surrounding proper care for their loved ones and how to balance such care with careers and family life.

Anyone who has helped arrange care for a loved one, or received care themselves, knows that home care workers provide indispensible care and support to the elderly and people living with disabilities. They deserve fair wages, benefits and opportunities for training and career advancement.

This year, we have two exciting opportunities to help stabilize the long-term care industry and prepare for the challenges ahead as the baby boomers age. Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) and Sen. Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-Pa.) are reintroducing legislation that will finally end the exemption of home care workers from minimum wage and overtime protections. This legislation will aptly be named “The Direct Care Job Quality Improvement Act.” In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor is expected to issue a proposed rule that could overturn the exemption of direct care workers from minimum wage and overtime protections later this year.

Ultimately, this is an issue of respect and fair play. Not just for home care workers, who are overwhelmingly dedicated and compassionate souls, but also for those who depend on them.  Every American deserves the opportunity to retain their independence, with the proper assistance that allows them to maintain their pride and dignity. I know that there will be many people who are inspired by Evelyn Coke’s legacy joining us in this fight. Will you?

Leonila Vega is the executive director of Direct Care Alliance.