Labor advocates expected 2015 to be the year that some long-overdue respect finally comes to workers who provide home-based care for seniors and people with disabilities. But just as a federal reform granting those workers minimum wage and overtime pay was to be enacted this month, a district court judge has ruled in favor of the industry’s objections to giving home care workers equal rights. With the revisions blocked for now, the new year brings more hardship and uncertainty to a workforce on which hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people depend.
Although twenty-one states and the District of Columbia currently mandate some overtime or minimum wages for home care workers, the rule change would have guaranteed a national baseline for decent labor conditions under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). But industry groups have long resisted expanding the rights of historically marginalized care workers and last year sued to preserve the current system for roughly 2 million workers, the vast majority of them women, disproportionately poor, immigrants and of color. The regulation, issued by the administration in October 2013 after months of political wrangling, reinterprets a forty-year-old exemption for “companionship workers” that excluded home care workers when lawmakers extended labor protections for domestic workers.
But Judge Richard Leon of the US District Court for Washington, DC, just issued the second of two decisions vacating the rule, siding with the Home Care Association and other business groups by declaring that the Labor Department’s rule was “inconsistent” with the intent of Congress, and that the rule threatened to undermine services. An earlier ruling in December partially vacated the new rules for “third party” employers who provide in-home service to private households. The latest opinion targets the Labor Department’s definition of “companionship” in the FLSA, contending that the Obama administration was “trying to do through regulation what must be done through legislation.” The decision might be challenged in further litigation, so the rule is not dead. But workers and consumers are for now still stuck with a Depression-era labor law that hasn’t caught up to the realities of the industry—a sector that’s supposed to be at the cutting edge of healthcare.
Judge Leon found that the Labor Department overreached by defining “companionship” narrowly. In the Labor Department’s understanding, Congress meant only to exclude casual workers performing “elder sitter” services, as opposed to the skilled, often physically and mentally demanding labor that home care workers typically perform today. The court countered that Congress wrote the exemption with a broader view of companionship services in mind, but were motivated by “concern with the ability of their constituents to pay for in-home care on a regular basis.” Thus, the judge argued, lawmakers understood the value of these workers when contemplating “sitting” services, but still wanted to keep wages low.