Wage Protection Planned for Home Care Workers

The Obama administration said on Thursday that it would propose regulations to give the nation’s nearly two million home care workers minimum wage and overtime protection. Those workers have long been exempted from coverage.

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Labor unions and advocates for low-wage workers have pushed for the changes, asserting that the 37-year-old exemption improperly swept these workers, who care for many elderly and disabled Americans, into the same “companion” category as baby sitters. The administration’s move calls for home care aides to be protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the nation’s main wage and hour law, as most other workers are.

“The nearly two million in-home care workers across the country should not have to wait a moment longer for a fair wage,” President Obama said in a statement. “They work hard and play by the rules and they should see that work and responsibility rewarded.”

These workers, according to industry figures, generally earn $8.50 to $10 an hour — around $17,000 to $20,000 a year — compared with the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. In its announcement, the White House said 92 percent of these workers were women, nearly 30 percent were African-American and 12 percent Hispanic. Nearly 40 percent of them rely on public benefits like Medicaid and food stamps.

While industry experts say the overwhelming majority of today’s home care aides are paid at least the minimum wage, they also say that many do not receive a time-and-a-half premium when they work more than 40 hours a week.

“The job they do is a real job and they deserve the same basic rights as any other workers,” said Steven Edelstein, national policy director of PHI PolicyWorks, a nonprofit group that seeks to improve conditions for home care workers. “This industry has one of the nation’s fastest-growing work forces, and the challenge is to make these better jobs if we’re trying to attract good people to come and provide the services.”

Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis has made clear for several months that she was considering updating decades-old regulations in several areas, including the home care industry, where workers often provide services like tube feeding, wound care or assistance with physical therapy. The changes the administration is proposing will be subject to 60 days of public comment.

In recent weeks, numerous Republican lawmakers have criticized the anticipated proposals, saying they would increase costs for federal and state programs as well as individuals.

At a hearing last month, Representative Tim Walberg, a Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House subcommittee on work force protections, said, “Medicare and Medicaid expenses will likely increase as a result” of narrowing the companionship exemption. He added that the move was going to make senior citizens and their families “less able to afford home care, which is typically paid not by insurance, but by families themselves.”

In 1974, the Labor Department exempted “companionship” workers from coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act, a move that focused on baby sitters at a time when the home care industry was in many ways in its infancy.

Under the changes, industry experts said, for the first time many home care agencies would be required to pay their aides for the hours spent each day traveling between patients’ homes.

According to the federal government, the nation’s over-65 population will climb to 72 million in 2030, from 40 million today, and an estimated 27 million of them will need some form of home care.

In 2007, the Supreme Court issued a decision involving a New York home care aide, Evelyn Coke, who often worked 70 hours week, ruling that she was not entitled to overtime pay under existing regulations. The court said it was up to Congress or the Labor Department to change the rules.

The White House said that nearly 90 percent of home care workers were employed by agencies. Officials with the National Association of Home Care and Hospice said Thursday’s announcement would cause many agencies to hire more workers rather than pay a overtime to employees who worked more than 40 hours a week.

“The vast majority of these workers are women, many of whom serve as the primary breadwinner for their families,” Secretary Solis said. “This proposed regulation would ensure that their work is properly classified so they receive appropriate compensation and that employers who have been treating these workers fairly are no longer at a competitive disadvantage.”