Caretaker industry pushes back as wage rules review nears end

Time is running out for a White House review of a rule that would give in-home healthcare workers the same opportunities for minimum wage and overtime as traditional workers.

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The Labor Department’s rule is in the final review stages at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), the agency within the White House that analyzes potential regulations.

Union groups have been pushing for the equal pay standards for years, saying that in-home healthcare workers are severely underpaid. Industry and disability groups counter that a wage increase would make caretaker rates unaffordable and force layoffs in a sector that thrived during the economic downturn.

OIRA has 90 days after it receives a proposed or final rule to either move it forward or send it back to the regulator. The Department of Labor’s companionship rule arrived in January, giving OIRA an April 15 deadline to complete its review.

“The nearly 2 million in-home care workers across the country should not have to wait a moment longer for a fair wage,” said President Obama in 2011, when the rules were originally proposed. “They work hard and play by the rules and they should see that work and responsibility rewarded.”

Though the Fair Labor Standards Act sets standards of pay for companionship workers, the nearly 40-year-old law didn't predict the rise of in-home caretakers. The number of personal care aides doubled from 1998 to 2008 and is expected to increase by another 70 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the Department of Labor.

The White House has held several meetings with industry and advocacy groups in the last few months; the most recent was with a nonprofit organization called Advocates for Disability Awareness and Provider Training.

The group opposes the new regulations, which it says will drive up the costs of in-home care and could also force disabled individuals into state-based institutions.

Two weeks ago, the federal government’s National Council on Disability met with officials and echoed the sentiment, writing to OIRA that the rule could result in unintended consequences.

“There is a clear concern expressed by consumers that the proposed rule will create changes that have a significantly adverse impact on the community of Americans with disabilities and seniors that rely on such services,” wrote Jeff Rosen, the chairman of the council.

The independent agency, established in 1984, told regulators that the new rules would loop in friends, family members or volunteers, making their care subject to wage regulations.

The National Association for Home Care and Hospice, an industry group wary of changes to regulations, told The Hill that association officials also had numerous sit-downs with OIRA.

“They certainly have given us a fair listen. At this point, we have no idea what [OIRA] will do,” said William A. Dombi, the vice president of law for the group.