Democrat Sanchez backs effort to extend labor protections to home care workers

For 35 years, home care workers have been exempt from the minimum wage and overtime protections granted to the rest of the nation’s workforce. This week, a House Democrat will take a step toward eliminating that discrepancy, which many in the party consider discriminatory.

Rep. Linda Sanchez will introduce legislation Wednesday to expand the wage protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to home care workers, who provide health and other domestic services to the sick and elderly. The California Democrat says the change is needed to entice more home care workers into the field in the face of an ever-increasing demand for their services.

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“It’s one of the worst-paid jobs in the country,” Sanchez told The Hill on Tuesday. “In this day and age,” she added, the current FLSA exemption “is shocking.”

Senior advocates agree. AARP spokesman Jordan McNerney said Tuesday that the group has yet to see the Sanchez bill but supports the concept.

“As older Americans continue to choose home and community-based care over more costly nursing homes,” he said in an e-mail, “the home health workers who care for them should be fairly compensated.”

Supporters argue that reform is long overdue. In 1974, Congress expanded the FLSA wage protections to many domestic workers, including most direct care workers, such as certified nursing assistants and home health aides.

But lawmakers also carved out an exemption for those providing simple “companionship services.”

The Department of Labor (DoL) subsequently placed home care workers into the category of companions — an interpretation upheld in a 2007 Supreme Court case.

Sanchez, whose father suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, said the distinction represents “a technical way to exclude these workers from basic protections.”

Her proposal will establish systems for collecting wage and employment data on direct care workers nationwide while also offering grants to states for recruitment, retention and training of those workers. The bill would authorize $25 million in grants each year for the next five years.

Supporters of the Sanchez bill, including the Direct Care Alliance (DCA), are quick to point out that the number of Americans needing long-term care is expected to jump to 27 million by 2050 — more than twice the number in 2000. With salaries for direct care workers averaging just $17,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there’s little incentive for new workers to enter the profession, DCA says.

“There aren’t enough workers to meet the demand,” said DCA spokesman Aaron Pickering.

The Sanchez bill is hardly the first time Democratic leaders have pushed to expand the FLSA protections. The DoL under President Clinton, for instance, had proposed last-minute rules to eliminate the home care exemption, but the George W. Bush administration was quick to withdraw the measure shortly after taking office.

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More recently, Sanchez spearheaded a 2009 letter to DoL Secretary Hilda Solis urging the Obama administration to make the change unilaterally. Senate leaders — including Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the labor panel — penned a similar letter.

In April, the DoL added the FLSA issue to its regulatory to-do list, but so far hasn’t taken steps to change the current rules.

The agency did not respond to requests for comment this week.