Due Respect: Minimum Wage Now Covers Home Caregivers

3026582934_2e8e3bb744The U.S. Department of Labor said Tuesday it will extend the federal minimum wage and overtime protections provided by the Fair Labor Standards Act to direct-care health workers, who are among the lowest paid employees in the country. The inclusion, which goes into effect January 1, 2015, will benefit nearly 2 million people, 90 percent of them women, working mainly in homes. Their minimum hourly wage will now match that of most American workers—$7.25 an hour, and pay-and-a-half for working more than 40 hours a week.

Home caregivers in 29 states have no minimum wage or overtime requirements, and they will now be eligible for receiving state minimum wages, which are often higher than federal.

The ruling ties up unfinished business, says Jocelyn Frye, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and senior fellow for the Center for American Progress. Six years ago, a suit by Long Island, N.Y., home-care worker Evelyn Coke argued that caregivers employed by third-party agencies should receive overtime pay and a federal minimum wage. The courts put the discretion on Congress to decide—and they finally have. By finally granting these benefits, says Frye, the Obama administration is showing workers the respect that comes from a minimum wage.

Frye hopes the new requirements will open discussions about fair pay for women at all economic levels. “So often when we talk about equal pay issues and fairness and wages, we end up focusing on women in upper-level jobs,” Frye says. “The conversation becomes just about the pay gap, and we sort of forget about women who are in very low-wage jobs.”

Adds Laphonza Butler, president of SEIU United Long Term Care Workers’ Union, which represents 180,000 in-home caregivers and nursing home workers across California:

As the ceiling rises, the floor also has to rise. … The role of women, the work that they do, the sacrifices they make to be caregivers have been less than valued, and I congratulate and celebrate our president for continuing his mission to lift up the role of women in our economy.

According to Butler, the ruling creates a more equitable playing field in the economy for at-home caregivers, whose profession is the second fastest growing in the country. Time will tell, she says, if the new ruling helps workers rise out of poverty and make caregiving a career in which people have more economic wherewithal to raise their families.

The $7.25 mark is hopefully just a beginning, since the majority of caregivers are primary breadwinners for their households, says Delia de la Vara, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, the United States’ largest Hispanic advocacy organization. Latinas comprise one in five U.S. care workers.

Better pay for caregivers may benefit the companies that employ them as well as the individuals themselves. Half the nation’s home caregivers quit each year, but at D.C.-based Home Care Partners, according to Deputy Director Roxanne Ando, the company’s annual turnover rate is only 15 percent—and its starting wage is a more generous $12.50 an hour.

Butler of SEIU hopes that states will look at the new federal ruling as a step forward in raising the status of caregivers. “When we are able to establish in our society that being a caregiver for our elderly is an acceptable and honorable career,” she says, “then I think that we will be able to more fully address the needs of the workers that are currently in that system.”

Photo by Flickr user Jimmy Hemphill under license from Creative Commons 2.0

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Emily Zak is finishing up her B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana as an editorial intern for Ms.

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