labor A vision on the verge of realization
When President Obama announced a proposed rule more than 18 months ago that would finally extend minimum wage and overtime pay to home care workers, it put these protections within reach for what has become the fastest growing sector of America’s economy.
This Tuesday will mark the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) -- a monumental law for workers’ rights. As we near this anniversary, instead of celebrating FLSA’s tremendous legacy of limiting and prohibiting worker exploitation, we are left wondering: When will home care workers receive these long-overdue, but basic labor protections? FLSA works and the American people like it. It was enacted following the Great Depression, and proof of its continued relevance can be seen in the numerous amendments Congress has passed to extend the law’s protections to previously excluded workers. And FLSA’s popularity is not limited to Congress. For most of us, these rules are part the basic fabric of what it means to work in America. In fact, current polls find that the majority of Americans support an increase in the minimum wage. Most of us don’t think about our labor protections on a daily basis because they are so basic -- but those of us who are excluded certainly notice.
FLSA’s popularity makes sense. The law ended some of the worst abuses of American workers by establishing the 40-hour work week, restricting child labor, setting a minimum wage and requiring overtime pay for hours worked beyond 40 in a given week. The law doesn’t require overtime hours or prevent individuals from working overtime -- it requires that those workers be compensated for the personal sacrifices they make when working the extra hours.
Unfortunately, the exclusion of home care workers from these basic labor protections is a product of America’s history of discrimination against women and minorities. To get the votes needed to pass FLSA, FDR made deals with southern Senators -- deals that excluded domestic workers from the bill. With three out of five African-American women working as domestic workers at that time, the deal struck in 1938 was a Jim Crow-era compromise. A few decades later, FLSA was amended to include domestic workers, but home care workers remained excluded because they were classified as “companions” to the elderly or infirm. The implication was that home care work is comparable to casual babysitting, or wasn’t a “real” job. These discriminatory provisions remain in place today.
The truth is that home care is real work performed by professionals, and deserves to be treated as such. Anyone who has ever done this work, employed a home care worker or depended on one knows this. Unfortunately, median hourly wages are less than ten dollars an hour and over 30 percent of home care workers don’t have health coverage. Paying this booming workforce substandard wages swells the ranks of the working poor -- nearly half of all home care workers live in households that rely on some form of public benefits, like Medicaid or food stamps. And the dismal wages and benefits contribute to high turnover rates, which hurt care quality and cost consumers, families and employers money.
We have an opportunity and an obligation to upend this reality and provide home care workers with basic labor protections that will support workers and consumers nationwide. A dignified, respected and fairly compensated workforce is a stable workforce, which is crucial for the millions of older adults and individuals with disabilities who choose to remain at home to receive the quality care, services and supports they need and deserve. If we are going to meet the rapidly growing demand for in-home services and supports for our aging grandparents, parents, veterans, friends and ourselves, we must make home care a profession that is attractive to dedicated, skilled workers.
With FLSA’s 75th anniversary around the corner, as we reflect on its undeniable value, importance and popularity, home care workers stand on the outside looking in. I can’t think of a more perfect time or a better way for President Obama to pay tribute to 75 years of FLSA than by giving home care workers reason to join in the celebration.
Carla D. Washington is the executive director of the Direct Care Alliance, the national advocacy voice of direct care workers.