Fair Pay for Home Care Workers Is Victory for All
Theresa King, a home care worker in Los Angeles, spends her work days ensuring that her client – an energetic woman in her late 80s who has Alzheimer’s – can live in her own home, where she is most comfortable. Theresa helps her client bathe, dress, prepare meals, and manage a wide range of other personal care and daily activities that most of us take for granted.
She’s not alone. Theresa is one of about 2 million home care aides who everyday assist elders and people living with disabilities with basic activities of daily living. Without this critical workforce, millions of Americans would be unable to live independently and instead would have to move into more expensive nursing homes or assisted living facilities.
As the country ages, the home care workforce is growing in importance – and size. Already one of the largest workforces in the country, the home care industry will need to recruit more than one million new workers to these physically and emotionally taxing jobs over the next decade.
Fortunately, a recent change in labor regulations, which became fully operational as of January 1, should make it easier to find workers for these caregiving jobs. After years of struggle, home care aides are finally covered under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. This means that for the first time, these workers are guaranteed to earn the federal minimum wage and time and a half for overtime hours.
Though this may seem like a small victory—after all, a guarantee of $7.25 per hour isn’t much—it has big implications. Most importantly, ending this exemption from basic labor laws brings dignity to millions of workers, who up until now have been treated like teenage babysitters rather than the skilled professionals they are. In addition, guaranteed minimum wage sets a wage floor that can rise as the minimum wage is increased. And the rule also brings other benefits: compensation for all hours worked, including time spent traveling between clients, and standard overtime benefits that make the sacrifice of working long hours more beneficial for the worker.
The Fair Labor Standards Act exemption has been a key factor in keeping wages low throughout the home care industry. Average annual earnings are less than $17,000, and real wages over the last decade have fallen by 6 percent. Though the industry argues that keeping wages low is the only way to keep care affordable, the reality is that keeping home care workers poor undermines workforce stability. One out of every two workers leaves the field each year, leaving families unable to find the consistent, skilled help they so desire for parents, grandparents, and others who need support at home.
The new rule represents a great victory for the majority female home care workforce---but also for millions of family caregivers. A more stable home care workforce will give those who need care, provide care, or manage care greater peace of mind. Working women across the country will feel more secure knowing that their elderly parents and other relatives are in the care of a skilled, professional workforce that is finally being pulled out of the shadows and given the respect it deserves.
Now that the rule has become law, it is important for states, who pay for home care services through their state Medicaid programs, to ensure thoughtful implementation. Families who pay privately for home care also need to know and understand the new rules, particularly regarding live-in workers. And it is time for the home care trade associations to recognize the value of the rule change to all stakeholders and drop their continued efforts to reverse this important victory. As Theresa King put it, the new rules are about basic fairness. “None of us are looking to get rich,” she said. “We just want to be able to live and support our families like everyone else.”