Are Home Care Workers Entitled to at Least Minimum Wage?

Are Home Care Workers Entitled to at Least Minimum Wage?

Believe us, we were surprised, too.

Under the "companionship exemption" to the American Labor law, 2.5 million people who work in the home helping the elderly and disabled don't have to be paid minimum wage. They also are excluded from receiving time-and-a-half for working overtime.

That was supposed to change. December of last year, Obama held a press conference along with several home care workers to announce the administration would extend minimum wage protections to them. A year later, however, nothing has changed--the plan is caught up in federal red tape. Ironically, the proposal was part of an economic plan called, "We Can't Wait."

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Since that press conference a year ago, home workers' wages have declined in several states, according to an open letter to the president from the same female workers who stood with him at the press conference.

"Home care remains one of our nations fastest-growing but lowest paid occupations," the letter said. "Wages have long stagnated, and since December, have even declined in some states, forcing more workers and their families to rely on public assistance." They say the industry turnover is as high as 60% because of poor working conditions. And high turnover costs home care companies money, since they have to retrain workers.

While home care workers generally earn a little bit more than minimum wage--$8.50 to $12 an hour, compared with the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour--most do not recieve time-and-a-half for working overtime. And nearly 40% of them rely on public benefits.

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According to The Huffington Post, it's common for labor law changes to be caught up and delayed as business interests lobby to water them down. Critics of the rule change, which include Republicans and business groups, say it would raise costs and force home care agencies to lower the number of hours their employees work each week, and make home care prohibitively expensive for many people who need it.

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Instituted 37 years ago when the home care industry was just starting, the exemption was meant to exclude casual workers like babysitters from domestic worker wage protections. But with 90% of home care workers now employed by agencies, the exemption applies to a broad swath of professional home care givers. People hired for actual companion activities, like going on walks with the elderly and helping them engage in hobbies, would still be exempt from the wage protections.

The White House said last year that 92% of home care workers are women, nearly 30% are black and 12% are Hispanic. Sarah Leberstein, a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, said the exemption "has had an overwhelming impact on women and people of color and single mothers trying to get by doing necessary work," she said.

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