Domestic Workers Pressure Labor Secretary To Extend Worker Protections

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez

Just five days after incoming Labor Secretary Tom Perez was confirmed by the Senate, protestors organized by the National Domestic Workers Alliance will gather near Department of Labor headquarters on Tuesday to demand action on closing a labor law loophole. The domestic workers will call for Perez to come through on a promise the Obama administration made two years ago to extend minimum wage and overtime protection to in-home care workers.

In December of 2011, President Obama pledged to reverse a loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act called the “companionship exemption” that denies the guarantee of minimum wage and overtime pay to home care workers. The Department of Labor has since extended the public comment period on the rule change twice, although comments have mostly been positive. While the draft rule now sits with the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, it is unclear when it will be finalized, and a watchdog group says it “remains stuck down the regulatory ‘rabbit hole.’

Perez, however, has a close connection to the issues that impact those who work in people’s homes. When he served on Maryland’s Montgomery County Council in the early 2000s, he pushed for a domestic workers bill of rights. While it didn’t pass until after he left that position, the bill originally included a minimum wage of $10.50 an hour, mandatory paid vacation, and health insurance, although they were eventually stripped out. The current form extends other important rights to these workers.

But while the rule change languishes, many home care workers make below minimum wage and don’t get overtime pay. Although some states have passed laws to include them in labor protections, 28 still leave them out. In a compilation of some personal stories, Laura Lynn Clark explained how she cares for a mentally disabled woman making just $8.87 an hour and working 199 hours every two weeks without getting overtime. Overall, nearly 40 percent of home care workers pull in such little pay that they turn to public benefits to get by. Yet the Department of Labor has estimated the cost of paying them minimum wage and overtime would make up less than one tenth of one percent of the industry’s revenues.

The industry is certainly a booming one. Nearly 2.5 million people are home care workers, making it one of the largest occupations, and those jobs will grow by 70 percent by 2020. Demand for their services is expected to outpace supply over the next decade, but better pay could help reduce turnover and attract new workers.