Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Fair Wage for Caregivers

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New York Times

Change is too slow coming for the nation’s one million home care aides. In 2007, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld a 1975 federal labor regulation that defines home care aides as “companions.” That definition exempts home care employers — often for-profit agencies — from having to pay the federal minimum wage or time and a half for overtime.

In explaining their decision, the justices pointed out that the law gives the Labor Department, not the court, the power to change the regulation. Yet, more than two years later, the regulation still stands.

Last month, 15 senators sent a letter to Hilda Solis, President Obama’s labor secretary, urging her to eliminate the “companion” exemption. A month earlier, 37 House members sent a similar letter. But beyond a statement from Ms. Solis expressing concern and pledging to look into the matter, there has been no progress.

Not surprisingly, home care aides — who typically help to feed, dress and move their elderly and disabled clients, in addition to keeping house for them — remain among the most underpaid and overworked in the labor force. They usually manage to make above the nationwide minimum wage ($6.55 an hour now, rising to $7.25 an hour later this month), in large part because many states impose higher minimums than the feds.

Still, most make below $10 an hour. And they are routinely denied overtime pay. Federal rules do not demand it, and only 16 states and the District of Columbia require any extra pay for extra work. Lack of overtime pay is especially unjust in the home care field because extra long shifts, including overnight stays, are common.

Taxpayers ultimately make up for the low pay because many home care aides rely on food stamps and other public assistance. The public pays in other ways, too: turnover is high, undermining the quality of care and driving up overall costs.

The Labor Department got off to a slow start when Republican senators held up Ms. Solis’s confirmation, in part, to protest her support for unions. But further delay raises the danger that the plight of home care aides will get mired in the broader debate over health care costs.

Another danger is that industry opposition to better pay will gain renewed traction in today’s troubled economy. Some home care employers say that having to pay extra for overtime could drive them out of business. In states where varying all of A Fair Wage for Caregivers

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