On Tuesday, the Department of Labor announced a rule change to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that will finally expand protections to cover home care workers. President Obama had pledged in 2011 to undo a labor law loophole known as the “companionship exemption” to grant these workers the same labor protections enjoyed by other workers, and now they will be guaranteed minimum wage and overtime pay.
Here’s what you need to know about why this rule change is so important for the workforce:
Home care workers have been denied the same rights as other workers. The FLSA was expanded to cover domestic workers in 1974, who had been left out of the original bill. But a carve out was added for those who provide “care and fellowship” to the elderly and disabled in their homes. That loophole has been so broadly interpreted that home care workers, who feed, clothe, and bathe their clients while giving them medical care, sometimes around the clock, have been left out of these basic labor rights. When home care worker Evelyn Coke sued her employer for denying her overtime pay, the Supreme Court ruled that her employer’s actions were completely legal.
Home care workers make very little and many struggle to get by. Home health and personal care aides make just $9.70 at the median, or $20,170 a year. Many make too little to get by. In New York City, for example, 60 percent make poverty wages, with almost a third earning less than $15,000 a year. Nearly 40 percent of the workforce earns so little that they have to rely on public benefits to get by. One woman who has cared for a mentally disabled woman for ten years still makes just $8.87 an hour and works 199 hours every two weeks, giving her client around-the-clock care, without getting any overtime pay.
These jobs are part of a booming industry. Home health jobs are in high demand and the need for them is going to keep rising as more and more people need in-home care in their old age. Nearly 2.5 million people are already employed as home care workers, making it one of the largest occupations. The number of jobs is expected to grow by 70 percent by 2020. But the demand for these workers will likely outpace the supply over the next decade. Giving them a higher wage and paying them for overtime work could help attract new people to the industry.
Women and people of color disproportionately make up the home care workforce. More than 90 percent of these workers are women and half are people of color, making the rule change an important gender and racial justice issue. In fact, the change fulfills one of the original demands of the March on Washington to include all workers in the FLSA’s protections.