Revised companionship rule strengthens the home care workforce

On October 1, the U.S. Department of Labor published a revised rule that will guarantee, beginning January 1, 2015, that home care workers receive minimum-wage and overtime protections under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. Home care jobs – caring for elders and people with disabilities in their homes and communities-- are our nation’s fastest-growing occupations. The revised rule, which significantly narrows the “companionship exemption” is common sense: our country needs to attract more qualified workers to these caregiving jobs, and by ensuring basic wage standards we demonstrate that we value this work and the women who do it.

The Labor Department spent nearly two years reviewing some 26,000 public comments (more than 75 percent in favor of the proposed rule) and revising their proposal to ensure that the final rule would not have detrimental impacts on either home care providers or their clients. In an unusual move, the department also delayed the rule’s start date for 15 months, giving private employers and public programs time to adapt to new overtime rules. Unfortunately, that delay provides many months for those opposed to the rule to continue their efforts to undermine implementation.

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Yesterday, the House Majority held a hearing to stir up opposition to the revised rule. Their witnesses claimed that the revised rule will increase costs for families desperately in need of home care services. As a result, they maintained, elders and people with disabilities will be forced into nursing homes.

In my testimony, I presented another perspective. As president of Philadelphia’s Home Care Associates -- an agency that employs more than 200 home care workers -- I know all about the costs of running a home care business. And, since Pennsylvania is one of 15 states that has long mandated minimum-wage and overtime protections for home care workers, I know first-hand that you can run a successful home care business, providing affordable care, while paying workers a fair wage. 

Our experience is that in the long run, offering decent wages leads to greater investment by workers, resulting in lower turnover rates and better quality of care. Paying workers fairly simply makes sense, not only because it is the right thing to do – it’s also the smart thing to do. We need a stable, skilled home care workforce so that people of all ages with functional limitations can get the assistance they need to live independently at home, remain healthy, and participate in their communities.

Many of the arguments being made by those who oppose the revised companionship rule are intended to scare consumers—but they are not based on the facts. For example, opponents claim that the revised rule will result in increased institutionalization. But evidence from the 15 states that already provide minimum wage and overtime protections to their workers solidly demonstrates that there is absolutely no correlation between guaranteed wage and hour protections for home care workers and rates of institutionalization. In fact, strengthening the home care workforce is crucial to keeping individuals out of nursing homes. An underpaid, casual workforce cannot provide the quality services we need in millions of homes all across our nation.

It takes a special kind of person to do this work day in and out. Workers stay on the job when their work is respected and adequately rewarded.  Yet a national survey of the home care industry found only 28 percent of aides were employed more than one year. At Home Care Associates, our aides average about three years on the job. This employment consistency improves the quality of care we provide (by allowing aides to develop long-lasting relationships with clients) and helps our bottom line (by sparing us the costs associated with recruiting new workers).

The success of our company is proof that you can have thriving business and still pay workers decent wages. That is why we, along with many other employers, support the rule change.

As a nation, it is time for us to recognize the valuable role that home care workers play in caring for our loved ones. Many of us would not be able to work to support our own families if not for the assistance of a home care aide. And the need for quality workers will only increase in coming years. To build a stable, skilled workforce we need to treat home care workers fairly, providing them with the same labor protections that almost all other American workers enjoy. 

Kulp is president and CEO of Home Care Associates of Philadelphia and a member of the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute board of directors.

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