3:44 PM Eastern - Friday, August 13, 2010

Does the Fair Labor Standards Act Hate Home Care Workers?

For the last few months I've been thinking about and writing about home care workers. In my work, I find that if folks haven't had to hire a home care worker for themselves or their family, it appears that most of these workers fall off the radar.

The problem here is somewhat circular. The demand for home care services is exploding as the baby boomer generation ages and more seniors and people with disabilities choose to live at home rather than in a nursing home. Low wages, no federal minimum wage or overtime protections, and no benefits contribute to homecare workers leaving their profession (turnover is estimated to be as high as 60% per year). Consumers and patients have difficulty finding and keeping home care services as a result. Which leads to - yes - increasing demand for home care workers.

How did this happen?

scales-250.jpgWell, it goes all the way back to 1938 when the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was enacted to ensure a minimum standard of living for workers through the provision of minimum wage, overtime pay, and other protections - but domestic workers, for some reason, were excluded.

Then 36 years later, in 1974, the FLSA was amended to include domestic employees, such as housekeepers, full-time nannies, chauffeurs, and cleaners. However, people who were described as "companions to the elderly or infirm" were for some reason excluded from the law. They were compared to "babysitters." Weird, huh?

The following year, in 1975, the Department of Labor (DOL) goes on to interpret this "companionship exemption" as including all direct-care workers in the home, even homecare workers employed by third parties, such as home care agencies.

So, in 2001, the Clinton DOL finds that "significant changes in the home care industry" have occurred and issues a "notice of proposed rulemaking" that would have made important changes to this weird exemption. They agreed that it made no sense to exclude this whole industry, as if they were just like "babysitters."

Clinton's findings were unfortunately short-lived because the incoming Bush Administration terminated the revision process. Thank you, Mr. Bush.

In 2007 something else happened worth noting: The US Supreme Court, in a case brought by New York home care attendant Evelyn Coke, upheld the DOL's authority to define this exception to the FLSA. This means, this crazy archaic law can easily be reversed by the DOL.

Meanwhile more than 1.5 million homecare workers are currently living at near poverty level earning a median income of $17,000 a year. Most of these workers, who both love their work and are good at their work, must have two and three jobs to just make ends meet. Many of these workers need food stamps to put food on their tables. All this ultimately comes back to the consumer who often finds it difficult to find and retain high quality homecare services.

The injustice here is, as was said in a June 6 NY Times Op-Ed, " ...while nannies and caregivers make it possible for professional couples to balance the demands of family and work, they often cannot take time to be with their own families when sickness or injury strikes."

Though I inherently know that we can fix this problem together, I am keen to know what you think is the best way to make this happen.

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