Women's work: The unfinished business of Frances Perkins

ADVERTISEMENT
One of Perkins's signature accomplishments, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), turns 75 this year. It established the 40-hour work week, placed restrictions on child labor, set the first-ever federal minimum wage, and required overtime pay for hours worked over 40 in a given work week. By any measure, the FLSA improved working life for most Americans.


But not for all Americans.

In order to pass the FLSA, FDR had to cut deals with southern Senators that excluded domestic and agricultural workers from the provisions of the bill. In other words, the people who grew our food and took care of the young and the elderly in our homes were not entitled to the same basic protections as most other American workers. At the time, three out of five African-American women were domestic workers. A Jim Crow-era ”compromise,” the exclusion of these workers from FLSA protections was unjust then and remains unjust today.

When Congress amended the FLSA in 1974, it maintained an exemption for casual babysitters. It also excluded people who were “companions” to the aged or infirm. This narrow definition did not account for the reality of professional home care workers who help millions of older Americans and people with disabilities live with dignity in their own homes. They are real workers, and they deserve real wages and protections.

Last year, President Obama proposed changes to Department of Labor regulations that would right this injustice: Home care workers would be guaranteed at least minimum wage and time-and-a-half for overtime. These rules are currently under review before taking effect, and powerful forces are lobbying to stop them. 

Nine out of ten home care workers are women, most are members of minority groups, and many are immigrants. It is time to close the loopholes in the Jim Crow-era deal that institutionalized these workers as second-class citizens who can be denied the most basic workplace rights.

Frances Perkins stood for the rights and dignity of all workers in America, especially women in low-wage professions. It’s time we fully honor her memory by fully realizing her vision.
 
Dudzinski is a certified nursing assistant and president of the board of directors of Cooperative Care, a worker-own home health care provider in Wautoma, Wisconsin. She is also chairwoman of the Direct Care Alliance board and vice chair of the Wisconsin Direct Caregivers Alliance.

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 the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and was named one of Time magazine's Most Influential People in the World.