Why are the people caring for our older parents and grandparents excluded from minimum wage and overtime pay?

by Richard Negri

We don’t usually think about home care workers until our parents or grandparents need their services. They are the workers who are in the homes with the patients, and who have to deal with the most intimate responsibilities. They are caregivers who believe that everyone — no matter their age or illness — deserve proper care, companionship, and, in many cases, love.

And they deliver!

Most people don’t realize that these hard workers are excluded from minimum wage and overtime protections. No matter the intense and often thankless work, many have to have two or three jobs just to make ends meet; yet they are taking care of our parents and grandparents in ways we cannot.

A personal perspective

When my mom became ill with cancer 16 years ago, we were faced with something none of us would have imagined: shame and pride! I have two brothers, no sisters … it was just our mom and us.

Mom didn’t want her boys to see her using the bathroom, let alone lifting her from the toilet when she became so weak she couldn’t do it on her own. She wouldn’t let us bathe her; mom was even embarrassed and ashamed for us to see her vomit from the cocktail of meds she was on. We were ready to do it all and more, but she was adamant; she’d cry and beg us to not do any of it.

We had to get some help. Someone outside of the family, a woman, someone strong and able to lift her up, move her around, make the bed and not be too squirmish with throw up.

We are a working family and we didn’t know from accepting help – but we learned. We also learned that regardless of our finances, no amount of money was too much to keep mom comfortable during this time.

When we learned how much it cost to have someone come to the apartment to do all this work we were kind of shocked. We were also shocked to learn that most of what we were paying the agency didn’t go to our mom’s home care worker. We made a decision, legal or not, to pay the worker cash every week above and beyond what we paid the agency. Our only condition was that she cater to our mom’s every wish, and if something seemed unreasonable, not to tell her – but tell us.

It worked.

When our mom passed on, her home care worker sent us flowers and a beautiful card. We will probably never need her services again, but we sure are glad she was there when we did need her.

Let’s look at the law. Here is a time line of events (or non-events) that will put this in another light:

1938 – The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is enacted to ensure a minimum standard of living for workers through the provision of a minimum wage, overtime pay, and other protections — but domestic workers are excluded.

1974 – The FLSA is amended to include domestic employees such as housekeepers, full-time nannies, chauffeurs, and cleaners. However, persons employed as “companions to the elderly or infirm” remain excluded from the law.

1975 – The Department of Labor (DOL) interprets the “companionship exemption” as including all direct-care workers in the home, even those employed by third parties such as home care agencies.

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 the exemption. The revision process is terminated, however, by the incoming Bush Administration.

2007 – The US Supreme Court, in a case brought by New York home care attendant Evelyn Coke upholds the DOL’s authority to define exceptions to FLSA

Today: We are calling on DOL Secretary Hilda Solis to end the companionship exemption.

What are we doing, what can you do to help?

We have an online campaign to help these workers get the justice they deserve. In the moment our campaign involves Facebook and Twitter. We also need bloggers to help get the word out. Eventually, in partnership with PHI Policy Works, we will have a petition and a letter-to-the-editor action, but for now, we need to get this information out there so people realize that there are workers in 2010 who are excluded from our most basic of labor laws.

Take Action

  • Become a fan of the DOL Facebook page and post this message: Sec. Solis, home care workers deserve minimum wage and overtime protection. It’s time to end the companionship exemption: http://bit.ly/a5pF1e
  • On Twitter, copy, paste, and tweet this message:@HildaSolisDOL It’s time to end the exclusion of home care workers from minimum wage and overtime exemption: http://bit.ly/a5pF1e

Together we can make this happen.

Richard Negri is an Online Organizer for the Service Employees International Union, and runs an independent labor-related website called UnionReview.

One Response

  1. An interesting artical, I work as a home help in the Netherlands. I wash, give medication to old people. We are falling under a collective agrement, we are paid untill now 40% extra for inconvinient hours (evenings and weekends), our home help organisation 3000 workers has a fusion with diverend old people centra, now there are working 9000 workers. Untill now tehe cleaning falls under the same collective agrement (CAO).

    We are now in a fight with the bosses, they want a more bad collective agrement. After the sumer vacation (3 weeks, and we have still more holidays)
    we are starting to build a movement for better conditions, like the cleaners who have won a great vicrory we have a change, problem is the Floris Nightingale way of thinking, strikes are “harmfull”for the patients. There is a lot of support , even in the right wing media.

    Atte Houtsma s union rep from the civel servant union health sector in the Netherlands.

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