DOL considering giving 2 million home care workers basic labor protections – National Consumers League

By Michell K. McIntyre, Director of NCL’s Special Project on Wage Theft

It’s amazing. It’s amazing that — during last week’s House Education and Workforce Committee hearing on the proposed Department of Labor’s rules narrowing the definition of “companionship” that would give more than 2 million home care workers basic labor protections — a witness had the audacity to claim that he was opposing the rules as a way to protect his workers. The congressional hearing centered around the home care industry and the workers who perform the invaluable job of taking care of our fast-growing elderly and disabled populations.

The home care industry has enjoyed the loophole in labor law that was originally carved out to exclude occasional babysitters and “elder sitters” (companions) from minimum wage and overtime laws. This loophole allowed them to skirt the basic protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act. These employers do not have to pay their employees minimum wage nor overtime – allowing an employer to legally pay their workers $2 an hour with no legal recourse for the employee. Due to this loophole the home care industry has enjoyed record profits, for example in 2009 the industry made $84.1 billion in profits, and is one of the largest and fastest-growing sectors in today’s economy. Yet the industry has cried ‘foul’ and ‘poor house’ when faced with the possibility of having to pay their workers the basic rights and protections of minimum wage and overtime.

Almost all home care workers are female, and the vast majority are minorities. These women are often the sole breadwinner for their families and are struggling at poverty level wages. In order to survive, a large percentage of home care workers have to depend on social safety-net programs such as food stamps and Medicaid. With the home care workforce projected to grow by nearly 50 percent again by 2018 and be the major source of growth and jobs in the U.S. economy by adding 1.3 million jobs by 2020, something needs to be done to cover these workers under the most basic labor protections.

Yet this witness claimed that having to pay his employees minimum wage and overtime, would adversely affect the workers’ pay. If an employee is already working 50-hour-weeks with no minimum wage and overtime, how would earning an increased wage plus time and a half overtime hurt them? Even at the median wage of $9.34 an hour, with no overtime, a worker would only make $19,427 a year – far below a basic self-sufficiency income for a single adult, let alone someone supporting a family.

Ted Kennedy once said, “No one who works for a living should live in poverty.” It’s time to value the incredible work home care workers do and respect them enough to cover them under the very basic protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act and give them the right to get paid the minimum wage and overtime.