People who work inside the homes of the elderly or disabled are being left out of many higher state minimum wages.
On January 1, 2015, new federal rules from the Department of Labor will take effect to end a loophole called the “companionship exemption,” which had been interpreted to mean that these workers weren’t covered by the Fair Labor Standard Act’s minimum wage and overtime rules that nearly all workers enjoy. That will mean the country’s home care workers, who feed, bathe, and otherwise care for their clients, should all be paid at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 starting next year.
But some state laws leave them out of any wages that might go higher than that. Eighteen — Alaska, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming — exempt home care workers, according to an analysis of state laws by the National Employment Law Project (NELP). In these states, “the worker would not be covered by the higher state minimum wage,” Sarah Leiberstein, staff attorney with NELP, told ThinkProgress.
Among that group, some wages have already been raised, while efforts are underway in others. Delaware has already raised its minimum wage to $8.25 by 2015, Rhode Island raised its wage to $8 an hour starting January 1, and West Virginia raised its wage to $8.75 by 2016. But home care workers won’t get the benefit of those increases. And there are efforts underway in six others: a ballot initiative in Alaska for a $9.75 wage by 2016, a ballot push in Idaho for a $9.80 wage by 2017, a push from New Hampshire’s governor for a higher minimum wage, a bill in Utah for a $10.25 wage, a bill in Vermont for a $10.10 wage by January, and a bill in Virginia for a $9.25 wage by 2015. If any of these were to become law, the home care workers in those states would not be covered.
Similar bills were defeated earlier this year in Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, New Mexico, and Wyoming, although they may resurface – in Iowa, at least, a group has formed to keep pushing for a higher wage.
In three states, Hawaii, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, some of these workers are covered and some are not. A handful of others – Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Washington, and Wisconsin – limit their exemptions to live-in care workers. Among these smaller groups, six states – Illinois, Hawaii, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Washington – are the home to either ballot initiatives or legislative pushes to raise the minimum wage, which will also leave out any exempted workers
For all home care workers in these states to benefit from higher wages, it would take “a legislative change or a state [department of labor] issuing regulations that state that exemption is not meant to apply to home care workers,” Leiberstein said. Absent that, employers will only be required to pay them $7.25 an hour.
There are some states where a little clarification could erase this problem. In Arkansas and Colorado, for example, the definitions of exempt “companions” is unclear, and if they were to follow the new rules at the federal level, it would allow for the inclusion of people who care for the disabled and elderly in their homes. “We think that those states should cover home care workers,” Leberstein said. “This presents an opportunity for the state agencies and legislatures to really clarify that home care workers are covered, and for the state departments of labor to do some guidance and let the industry know that state minimum wage does protect home care workers.”
The issue has extra importance for the home care workforce, who already make very low wages. In New York City, for example, 60 percent earn poverty wages, with almost a third making less than $15,000 a year. More than half have had to rely on public benefits at some point to get by. A raise in their minimum wage could help alleviate these problems.
One way to ensure they make higher wages, of course, would be to raise the federal minimum wage. President Obama has proposed raising it to $10.10 an hour. But Republicans have opposed the idea despite many of them supporting a higher wage under President George W. Bush.