It took about 40 years after the passage of federal wage standards for the government to decide that domestic workers deserved a minimum wage. And it’s taking nearly another 40 years for home healthcare workers—the subset of the industry specializing in elder and disability care—to gain the same protections. The Obama administration has amended federal wage and hour regulations to close a longstanding exemption for these aides. And after a legal tussle with home healthcare employers, last week, an appeals-court judge struck down a lower-court ruling blocking the reforms, paving the way for extending minimum wage and overtime protections for some of the poorest workers caring for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.
The new rules, first issued in 2013, target the workers employed by home healthcare agencies, who were excluded in the 1970s amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) on the basis that their services were akin to “elder sitting” (read: not a “real” profession). In reality, the industry today has evolved into a major component of the healthcare infrastructure, tending to a range of physical and social needs including feeding, bathing, managing clients’ medication, and providing rehabilitation and recreational activity. Many of the responsibilities of the job require ongoing professional training, along with extreme hours (being on-call around the clock for intensive medical needs), and considerable manual labor (lifting fragile clients).
At a media conference announcing the decision, Santa Fe homecare worker Meriam Jawhar said the pending labor reforms were less about pay scales than they were about recognizing her vocation as dignified work: “I want people to know that the homecare is an occupation that deserves honor and validity.… When you’re caring for another human being, you’re making that person feel like a whole person despite whatever they’re going through. So it’s very important that we have a workforce to draw from, and making sure that people are trained and ready to go.”
The latest ruling (which may still face further court challenges) struck down a two-part district-court decision that held the Labor Department lacked the authority to unilaterally change the rules redefining the employers and job duties covered by the exemption. Judge Sri Srinivasan acknowledged that the Labor Department had only recently come to acknowledge the shifts that the home care industry had undergone—from a casualized workforce to one of the fastest growing healthcare sectors serving as a community-based alternative to institutionalization. The reforms, the court held, would “give those employees the same FLSA protections afforded to their counterparts who provide largely the same services in an institutional setting.”