The front line of today’s labor struggles isn’t the factory floor but the kitchen table: many of the most vocal labor campaigns came from the home healthcare workers who support people with disabilities and seniors. These professional carers have joined in the “Fight for 15” protests, led union organizing campaigns and scored a major win in Washington with an expansion of federal labor protections to home healthcare jobs. But the movement for labor rights at home got thwarted in court this week. A federal judge ruled against the pending regulation, deciding that the Obama administration had overstepped its authority when the Department of Labor extended minimum wage and overtime standards to homecare workers hired for by private agencies.
The ruling by the Washington, DC, district court vacates a specific provision that would broadly expand protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to workers hired by “third-party” employers to serve private households. Though the key expansions of the rule remain intact, the legal snafu indicates the complexity of securing even the most basic rights for this historically marginalized sector.
The new federal regulation would close a loophole in the FLSA that exempted “companionship” workers, who provide basic support services to seniors and the infirm. An earlier Supreme Court ruling effectively left it up to the Labor Department to clarify which homecare or direct-care workers are entitled to minimum wage and overtime standards. An extensive rulemaking process subsequently led to the new regulation that built on the demands of a coalition of labor, community and healthcare advocacy groups.
But the district court sided with industry groups, including the Home Care Association and International Franchise Association, which argued the rule change was an overreach that circumvented congressional authority. The judge also warned that the rules, as written, would “have a destabilizing impact on the entire home care industry,” and services would suffer.
But to homecare workers, the regulations represent a long-overdue step toward equity for a labor force fraught with poverty wages and harsh working conditions. Contrary to the stereotype that homecare workers are acting merely as “elder sitters,” today’s homecare aides, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), take on specialized tasks like “medication management, range-of-motion exercises, blood pressure readings, vital signs monitoring, and routine skin and back care.” The Obama administration’s rulemaking was designed to make federal regulations reflect the seriousness of their work.