CONTRIBUTORS

Home care workers deserve basic labor protections

Posted June 17, 2012, at 7:05 p.m.

I am a certified nursing assistant and have been a direct care worker for about 10 years. The work I do places me in the sensitive and critical position of becoming the eyes, arms, hands and legs of the people I assist. I honestly can say the lives of these individuals are in my hands. This is not work for an untrained doer of good deeds. It requires more than good intentions.

I currently work in a rehabilitation facility. I prefer home care, which is where I got my start, but as a home care worker I lacked benefits and had no guarantee of a 40-hour work week. Home care workers in other states face even more challenges; workers like me in 29 states across the country are not entitled to minimum wage, overtime pay or any other basic labor protections under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. FLSA applies to nearly all other American workers, but home care workers are exempt, considered mere “companions.”

I am grateful that here in Maine, home care workers are guaranteed minimum wage and overtime protections under state law, but home care workers across the country deserve these protections too.

This is not a new issue. Evelyn Coke was a Jamaican immigrant who worked as a home care worker for 20 years in New York City. She challenged the companionship exemption, suing for years’ worth of back pay for overtime hours she had worked at her regular hourly rate. Evelyn’s case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against her while noting that Congress or the U.S. Department of Labor could extend FLSA protections to home care workers.

This month, on the five-year anniversary of the ruling against Evelyn Coke, we have an important opportunity to help bring about the long-overdue changes she fought for. A rule proposed by the DOL would extend FLSA protections to us home care workers, entitling us to the basic labor protections we need and deserve — but only if it is enacted.

More than 26,000 comments were submitted to DOL during the public comment period that ended in March. The great majority were in favor of enacting the rule, but the home care industry is trying to keep that from happening. In response, a coalition of groups in favor of the rule has posted a petition ( http://chn.ge/theycantwait) asking the DOL and the White House to enact the rule so we home care workers don’t have to wait any longer for the pay we earn each day.

As a member of Direct Care Alliance and its Maine chapter, I have met hundreds of my fellow direct care workers over the years. All are highly skilled and caring. I am honored to be one of the more than 16,000 direct care workers in this great state.

Home care workers nationwide average less than $10 an hour. Many of us cannot afford health insurance. Nearly half live in families forced to rely on food stamps, Medicaid or another form of public assistance to get by. About 90 percent of us are women, and about half are members of minority communities: African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Haitians and others. Some of us see the lack of respect for this work, and the low wages that keep workers and their families in financial jeopardy, as a social justice issue, the result of a long-held and outdated tradition of devaluing “women’s work” and the work done by minorities.

Guaranteeing fair wages to home care workers is in everyone’s best interest. Millions of Americans already depend on home care workers, and that number is growing fast. If we can’t guarantee home care workers these basic labor protections, how can we attract and keep workers to provide the quality care we all deserve that most of us prefer to receive at home?

Please join me in signing the petition ( http://chn.ge/theycantwait). Together, let’s tell DOL and the White House that home care workers can’t wait any longer for justice.

Helen Hanson is a CNA and a direct care worker advocate in Central Maine.

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