The U.S. Department of Labor issued final regulations today that extend minimum wage and overtime protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act to about two million previously excluded home care workers—personal care assistants for the frail elderly and the disabled, home health aides, and other direct support paraprofessionals working in the homes of patients and clients needing personal help with needs ranging from changing the dressings on wounds and administering non-injectable medications to personal hygiene and ambulation. The home care workforce is growing fast as the population ages and more people are cared for in their homes, rather than in costlier institutional settings. These jobs need to be decent jobs that pay a living wage.
Although domestic workers, like nannies, chauffeurs and housekeepers, were first covered by the FLSA in 1974, most home care aides have been excluded from minimum wage and overtime protections by the Act’s vague “companionship” exemption, which was never meant to cover people providing services for pay, while in the employ of a third party, rather than in a direct relationship with the patient or elderly client. An agency—and there are very large agencies, some employing tens of thousands of home care workers—could therefore ignore FLSA rules about paying for travel time when an aide moved between one client’s home and another’s, ignore the rules governing break time, and avoid paying time and a half for overtime when an aide worked more than 40 hours in a week. Some employers have even paid less than the miserably low federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Incomes for home care aides are so low that an estimated 40% receive public supports like food stamps even as they work as many hours as they can. The low pay for the critically important work these aides do has led to very high turnover, the loss of experienced workers, and ever-increasing demands for guestworkers from abroad to take these jobs. A far better course would be to raise wages and require that wages are paid for every hour of their work—to treat this workforce with the respect they deserve.
The Department of Labor’s Home Care final rule is a good start on this process of lifting the wages and improving the lives of this vitally important and fast-growing group of care-givers.