Homecare workers left out of minimum wage, OT protections

Most people think that the right to earn the minimum wage, like child labor laws, is a given throughout our economy. But there’s an entire workforce that’s been left out — and it’s the second-fastest growing occupation in our nation. 

I’m referring to the two million homecare workers in our country today, who continue to be excluded from not only the right to minimum wage, but also overtime and basic protections that most of us take for granted.  

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Homecare workers today do the crucial work of caring for aging Americans and supporting people with disabilities, work that allows our loved ones to live at home and maintain their independence. It’s not a form of babysitting or mere “companionship,” as some who are opposed to extending these labor protections to homecare workers allege. It’s complex, skilled and difficult work that ranges from medical duties like physical therapy to bathing to monitoring and administering medications. And the emotional support these workers offer and affirmation of the human dignity of their clients are often equally as important.  

In 2013, recognizing the growing importance of homecare, the US Department of Labor took an important step forward when it announced that it would reverse this historic exclusion and extend homecare workers these basic labor protections. Yet implementation of this new rule has been delayed, due to a lawsuit filed by for-profit home care agencies that are seeking to block this new rule.  

As a nation, we cannot afford to allow these workers to continue to be left out. Ensuring that homecare jobs are quality jobs will be critical in the coming years as more and more people live longer and want to do so in the comfort of their own homes. And implementation of the DOL rule is a vital first step in recognizing the value of home care. 

Someone that I think of often when I think about the homecare workforce is Laurie, a former homecare worker in rural Pennsylvania. For years, she took care of her client Larry who had advanced emphysema. But after he passed, she left a job that she saw as her calling to become a truck driver, where, as she put it, the pay is better, she has benefits, and she can support herself and her children. 

We’re in an unsustainable situation where this increasingly vital workforce, one that we will count on more and more in the coming years, is undervalued, underpaid, and struggling to keep their heads above water. And in rural areas that people like Laurie and Larry call home, and where our elders can have an especially hard time accessing the care they need, such instability can upend lives throughout the community.

This is an issue we can no longer ignore, due to the changing demographics of our nation: every 8 seconds, someone turns 65 in America. This year alone, 4 million Americans will reach retirement age. By 2030, an unprecedented 20 percent of our population will be over the age of 65.   

Already, the demand for homecare is skyrocketing, and it’s projected that the homecare workforce will more than double over the next 10 years. It’s one of the fastest-growing job industries today — and also one of the lowest-paid.

A recent report from PHI found that homecare workers are paid on average only $9.61 an hour—so low that these workers, mostly women of color and immigrant women, that we count on to care for our loved ones can’t afford to care for their own families. Half are forced to rely on public assistance to support their own families. Many of these health care professionals don’t even have health care insurance themselves.

And because of the low wages and lack of benefits, half of all homecare workers, like Laurie, leave the job every year.  

You might wonder how important the DOL rule really is, since $9.61 an hour is above the federal minimum wage of $7.25.  As we’ve seen from the momentum in states and cities across the country—and in President Obama’s executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal employees—even $9.61 is far from a livable wage.  Establishing a minimum wage allows us to fight for a fair wage, and to ensure it keeps pace with inflation.  

The new rule isn’t just about minimum wage — it’s about other protections like the ability to hold employers accountable for poor labor standards, or the right to compensation for travel time. And, its fundamentally a question of fairness for both workers and employers in today’s economy: fairness for this workforce that has faced exclusion for far too long, and a level playing field for employers who actually pay a fair wage.  

We must guarantee that this workforce is provided the same basic rights as other workers — the right to minimum wage and overtime. Then, we will finally have a foundation upon which we can build real pathways to economic security and opportunity for the workforce we need to care for our aging population. 

It’s time to right this historic exclusion, and recognize homecare work as real work.

Poo is the co-director of Caring Across Generations, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and author of the new book, "The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America" (The New Press 2015).

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