When they work on-call shifts, New York’s home-care workers know that means the workday basically never ends. Workers say their real workday is simply nonstop, round- the-clock stress, and the state appeals court has agreed in several cases. Under the state’s arcane regulations, however, the health-care agencies that employ them are allowed to pay them for only half of a 24-hour shift and discount the remaining on-duty hours as three hours of meals and eight hours of “sleep.” But following key decisions striking down the rule, Governor Cuomo’s Department of Labor issued “emergency regulations” to restore the unjust status quo. And so many of the state’s hardest-working, lowest-paid health-care workers returned to their on-call shifts to toil around the clock at half the pay.
Following last year’s legal triumphs, “home attendants really rightfully celebrated that as a victory that came at least in part as a result of their organizing,” said Sophie de Benedetto with the Ain’t I a Woman labor-advocacy campaign. But after hundreds of workers petitioned to overturn the rule and testified about the “brutal conditions,” the Labor Department still upheld the more profitable industry standard (which is heavily subsidized by state and federal senior-care funds) of nonstop shifts for a 50 percent discount. Advocates are now pressing the State Labor Board of Appeals, which reviews Labor Department decisions, to abolish the rule directly.
Despite Cuomo’s claims of championing the rights of women workers, de Benedetto says that the state’s mostly female home-care labor force “really see this as Cuomo saying that forced 24-hour shifts are okay…. We’re going to steal…12 hours of your life, and you’re not going to get paid for it…. We really see these regulations as inhuman, brutal, and illegal.”
The appeals-court cases hinged on an obscure regulatory carve out for workers who technically do not live on site but remain on call 24-7, which exempts them from standard-wage and break-time provisions for live-in care workers such as residential nannies.
Before a recent Labor Board of Appeals hearing, 68-year-old home-care worker Ignacia Reyes recounted the never-ending days that filled her week for about a decade: three 24-hour shifts at a senior center in Brooklyn, followed by four all-day shifts for another social-service agency.
To support her family in the Dominican Republic, she worked about 72 hours weekly for $11 an hour, she said, but received regular wages for just 36 hours. Yet for years she never left her client’s side: “Even though I’m resting,” she testified, “I am still aware of what is happening with my patient. I always have to make sure my patient isn’t getting up out of the bed because she could leave the apartment and walk into the street, turn on the stove, or do other things that would be dangerous.” Reyes, who even left the door open when using the bathroom, was reminded by her employer that “if something happens to my patient, I could go to prison.”
Eventually, Reyes became a casualty of the job herself. Exhausted by her punishing schedule, she refused to take on a new client, and was then forced to sign papers she didn’t understand. It turned out to be her own resignation contract.