Economy

Court Ruling Grants Home Care Workers Minimum Wage, Overtime Protections

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A federal appeals court has reinstated a rule change that is meant to provide home care workers minimum wage and overtime protections.

In 2013, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced that it would make changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act so that this workforce, who care for the elderly and disabled in their homes, would be guaranteed the same labor protections as all other workers. But U.S. District Judge Richard Leon issued a decision vacating the change in January, saying the DOL doesn’t have authority to redefine the loophole it was trying to close, known as the companionship exemption.

The court in Washington ruled Friday that the department does in fact have that authority. “The Department’s decision to extend the FLSA’s protections to those employees is grounded in a reasonable interpretation of the statute and is neither arbitrary nor capricious,” Judge Sri Srinivasan wrote on behalf of the court.

While there are still potential legal hurdles that the rule change could face, most will likely take the district court’s decision to mean that home care workers have new rights. “States would be well advised, and employers would be well advised, to take this decision as final and begin acting,” Christine L. Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, told ThinkProgress. While the DOL had originally held off on enforcing the rule for six months while the challenge wound its way through the courts, that time has lapsed. “I can’t speak for the DOL, but my assumption is that it believes it has authority to begin enforcement now that this decision has been reversed in district court.”

This workforce, which is 90 percent female and half people of color, hasn’t been eligible for minimum wage or overtime pay since 1974, when they fell under the companionship exemption given the idea that they merely provided company to their clients. So while their average wages come to $9.61 an hour, nearly a third of those surveyed in New York City made less than $15,000 a year and nearly 40 percent of the entire workforce has to rely on public benefits to get by.

The low pay has prompted these workers to join the fight to be paid at least $15 an hour, and they have already secured the first victory: home care workers in Massachusetts who are members of 1199SEIU reached an agreement with the governor to be paid at least that much.

Home care workers are in a huge and rapidly expanding industry. Nearly 2.5 million people are employed in this line of work, making it one of the largest occupations, and the number of jobs is expected to grow 70 percent by 2020. Even so, demand is expected to outpace supply over the next decade as the country ages, something that could be eased with higher pay and benefits.