A predominately female and minority workforce has finally gained protection under federal labor laws that has been ensured to other factions of the workforce for decades. The Obama Administration announced in September that the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which won’t take effect until January 1, 2015, will now entitle most direct care workers (health workers, personal care aides and certified nursing assistants) to federal minimum wage and over time pay protection.
FLSA is far from new – in 1974 it was expanded to include domestic workers who provided “care and fellowship” to the elderly and disabled in their homes. Unfortunately, “care and fellowship” was left to the interpretation of employers. Many home care workers who worked 12-hour days feeding, bathing, clothing, and providing medical care to their clients were denied their basic rights due to the ambiguity of what “care and fellowship” actually means. The home health industry includes nearly 2.5 million workers – making it one of the largest occupations in the US.
The demand for home care workers continues to increase annually. More than 90%* of those employed are women and nearly half are people of color. This is both a racial and gender justice issue. Many of these women struggle to make ends meet. In New York City, 60% percent of those employed make poverty wages earning less than $25,000 a year. The workers must turn to public assistance to live or support their families. US Secretary Thomas Perez noted on September 17th, “home-care workers are no longer treated like teenage babysitters providing casual services under this rule. A fair wage will further stabilize and professionalize this critical line of work.”
Despite the strides being made, some home health employees will continue to be denied their rights. The bill only covers those employed through home health agencies and other third parties. This means workers hired directly will remain uncovered – even live-in aides. If a worker only provides companionship services, such as keeping a client company or taking a client to run errands and appointments she will remain excluded. The home care workers who will not be covered will continue to earn a median of $20,170 per year ($9.70 per hour). More has yet to be done to protect the women in this industry.
Zai Gilles is a Research Assistant at the Barnard Center for Research on Women and a senior majoring in French Literature and Language.