The Fight to Protect America's Growing Home Care Workforce

A proposed change to federal labor law will cover more home care workers.

People who care for children, elderly people, and disabled folks of all ages in home settings make it possible for the rest of us to head to our jobs, yet they're consistently left out of basic labor protections. That’s finally starting to change. In 2010, New York passed a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights that ensures decent work hours, paid time off, and recourse for discrimination. Now, the fight for similar bills has expanded to other states. The issue also recently made progress at the federal level, with President Obama announcing a proposed change to federal labor law late last year December that will cover more home care workers. The comment period for the proposed change ends next week.

These workers, predominantly women and people of color, comprise a booming industry: The number of home health aide jobs, for example, is projected to grow by 50 percent by 2018. But the pay and benefits remain dismal, with home health aides earning a median salary of less than $10 an hour. They rarely receive paid time off, almost 40 percent have no health insurance, and half rely on public benefits to supplement their incomes. Nannies don’t fare any better: A recent survey showed that the most common pay is $600 per week, or $31,200 a year before taxes.

Both types of home workers are poorly compensated, but there are key differences in how they're paid. Home care workers who care for the elderly are typically paid through Medicare and Medicaid, and can therefore bargain with the government. “That’s impossible for domestic workers caring for children, who have thousands of employers paying out of their private finances,” says Roosevelt Institute fellow and labor expert Dorian Warren.

Those distinctions in type of work, payment, and conditions make it complicated to ensure all in-home workers receive the labor protections they deserve. Here's what's happening at the state and federal levels, and where the fight should focus next.

New federal protections for home care workers

When the New Deal’s labor laws took effect, they excluded the types of in-home jobs held predominantly by women and minorities. That loophole was closed in 1974, when an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act extended minimum wage and overtime coverage to domestic workers, including childcare providers, cooks, and housecleaners. But the federal change included the companionship exemption, meant to exclude “casual” baby sitters and those providing company to the elderly or disabled. That caveat was interpreted so broadly that it left many homecare workers unprotected, denying them these basic benefits.

Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, says the exception was the result of a perception that those people “weren’t doing real work.” Of course, some people act simply as companions, sitting with the elderly to keep them safe or provide company. But the reality for many of these workers today is tough, grueling work. Steve Edelstein, national policy director for PHI, says these jobs—which often involve lifting the elderly and disabled to help them bathe, dress, and move around—have some of the highest injury rates of any profession. “It’s a job and has been for quite some time,” Poo says.

If the DOL’s rule change takes effect, anyone working through an agency will automatically be due minimum wage and overtime. Individual workers will also be protected if more than 20 percent of their workday involves such work. The rule acts as a federal floor, so states will be able to go further—like setting a living wage or addressing discrimination.

More states offering protections

New York's law goes much further than the federal proposal, covering "all domestic workers—nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers for the elderly,” says Poo. It also affirms New York’s minimum wage and overtime laws but goes much further, requiring time-and-a-half pay for overtime, at least three vacation days a year, and a maximum eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek. It ensures disability benefits and gives workers somewhere to turn when they experience harassment and discrimination.

Earlier laws, which granted minimum wage protection and overtime pay without the other protections, meant “the likelihood that the workforce protections in this area would be recognized [was] near impossible,” Poo says. “The Bill of Rights sent a message to workers and employers: This is a real workforce with real protections.”

The law also empowers workers to enforce their rights on their own, which is important for people working out of individual homes. “Does the Department of Labor send out inspectors to people’s homes?" Warren says. "I don’t think so.” Members of New York’s domestic workforce are now starting to bring lawsuits made possible by the bill. Four other states—California, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Colorado—are working on similar legislation.

What’s next?

There's still a lot of ground to cover. Poo says none of these changes deal with the “special vulnerabilities” of being isolated in a household and negotiating one-on-one with employers. These workers rarely receive training, which gives them little room for professional growth and can be dangerous in labor-intensive jobs such as elder care, Edelstein says. And while minimum wage is important, it’s far from enough to comfortably support a family.

Making in-home care workers safe and fairly compensated will require a new set of tactics—“There isn’t an organizing model, so they have to invent one," Warren says. Whatever the method, the changes are a long time coming.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user *clairity*

via Honor Africans / Twitter

The problem with American Sign Language (ASL) is that over 500,000 people in the U.S. use it, but the country has over 330 million people.

So for those with hearing loss, the chances of coming into contact with someone who uses the language are rare. Especially outside of the deaf community.

Keep Reading Show less

Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

RELATED: Bill and Melinda Gates had a surprising answer when asked about a 70 percent tax on the wealthiest Americans

"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

RELATED: Bill Gates has five books he thinks you should read this summer.

The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

The future generations will have to live on this Earth for years to come, and, not surprisingly, they're very concerned about the fate of our planet. We've seen a rise in youth activists, such as Greta Thunberg, who are raising awareness for climate change. A recent survey indicates that those efforts are working, as more and more Americans (especially young Americans) feel concerned about climate change.

A new CBS News poll found that 70% of Americans between 18 and 29 feel climate change is a crisis or a serious problem, while 58% of Americans over the age of 65 share those beliefs. Additionally, younger generations are more likely to feel like it's their personal responsibility to address climate change, as well as think that transitioning to 100% renewable energy is viable. Overall, 25% of Americans feel that climate change is a "crisis," and 35% feel it is a "serious problem." 10% of Americans said they think climate change is a minor problem, and 16% of Americans feel it is not a problem that worries them.

The poll found that concern for the environment isn't a partisan issue – or at least when it comes to younger generations. Two-thirds of Republicans under the age of 45 feel that addressing climate change is their duty, sentiments shared by only 38% of Republicans over the age of 45.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet