Homecare workers deserve fair pay

Imagine working a physically demanding job that pays less than minimum wage and earns you $17,000 a year.

This is the reality that many homecare workers face today. Many of them offer vital services to our family members but are excluded from the basic labor and wage laws that apply to the rest of us thanks to a loophole called the companionship exemption.

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It is absurd and disheartening that homecare workers can go years and years without the right to a minimum wage, a raise, or even overtime pay.

Direct care workers provide essential care and daily living services to millions of older Americans and individuals with disabilities.  Their jobs entail not only helping with meals and taking medications on time, but also bathing, dressing, and caring for our seniors as well as people of all ages who cannot do these tasks themselves. Homecare workers do all this and more in a very intimate setting, often sacrificing their physical and emotional health to help individuals stay in their homes.

An outdated rule under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) defines home care workers as companions, which exempts employers from federal standards governing overtime and minimum wage. This exemption impoverishes homecare workers, who make it possible for elders and people with disabilities to continue living in their homes and communities despite chronic health problems and other debilitating conditions.

Updating the law is ever more important when you consider that nearly 90 percent of seniors want to stay in their own homes as they age. The demand for home and community-based care continues to rise but our policies aren’t incentivizing workers to meet that demand in one of the few fields projected with high growth.

The current law victimizes both these workers, who are forced to work long hours at poverty wages with few benefits, and the seniors and people with disabilities who depend on them, who are faced with chronic labor shortages and too often inadequate care.  Homecare aides need fair pay and benefits.

President Obama sought the simple solution to this loophole by issuing a new Department of Labor (DOL) rule to extend basic minimum wage and overtime protections to homecare workers.

On January 1, 2015, more than two million U.S. homecare workers were finally scheduled to receive basic minimum wage and overtime protections under the FLSA. Unfortunately, instead of taking effect, the rule was struck down in federal court in response to a lawsuit brought by the home care industry.

An expedited appeal of that decision is underway. In February, 50 Members of Congress submitted an amicus brief to the court, communicating our full support of the rule and authority of DOL to extend minimum wage and overtime to homecare workers.

The appeals court will now decide whether the DOL rule will be implemented this year. At stake is much more than a better job for homecare workers. The decision will also determine the adequacy and quality of our nation’s long-term services and supports systems.

Seniors’ retirement years should be their golden years and I strongly believe that all Americans deserve protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act. President Obama’s rule would help ensure we make progress in these two areas. It is my hope that the appeals court will correct this long-standing injustice to help us better serve our seniors and our workers.

Sanchez has represented California’s 38th Congressional District since 2003.  She sits on the Ethics and the Ways and Means committees.