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Minimum wage and overtime protection proposed for home care workers

President Barack Obama yesterday gave home healthcare workers a boost of confidence when he announced his administration is proposing minimum wage and overtime protections for the country’s nearly 2 million home care workers.

“Right now, home care is one of the fastest growing industries in America, partly because we’re getting older as a society and as the baby boom heads into retirement more and more Americans are going to need the services of these outstanding workers. But here’s the thing,” said Obama in a live broadcast briefing.

“As the home care business has changed over the years, the law hasn’t changed to keep up, so even though workers … do everything from bathing to cooking, they’re still lumped in the same category as teenage babysitters when it comes to how much they make. That means employers are allowed to pay these workers less than minimum wage with no overtime,” he continued. “This means that many home care workers are forced to rely on things like food stamps to make ends meet. That’s just wrong. In this country it’s inexcusable.”

[See also: Analysis: Job quality endangers long-term care industry.]

Home care workers are currently classified as companions and as such are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act, which provides minimum wage and overtime protection to workers.

Twenty-nine states, including Alaska, Louisiana, North Carolina, Vermont and Texas, do not extend minimum wage and overtime protections to home healthcare workers. Sixteen states, including California, Hawaii, Maine, New York and Washington, do. Five states and the District of Columbia extend minimum wage but not overtime coverage.

The proposed rule to amend companionship and live-in worker regulations would apply to workers employed by third parties, like staffing agencies, and to those performing skilled in-home work employed by families. The regulations would not apply to those employed by families who perform tasks related to “companionship” – such as visiting friends and neighbors to check up on them or spend time with them.

While some, such as labor unions, are welcoming the proposed regulations, Steven Edelstein, national policy director at PHI, a nonprofit supporting improving conditions for home healthcare workers, said the organization is already seeing push back from some segments of the home care industry – particularly from large for-profit franchise chains.

“Time and again we’ve seen that any effort to ensure fair wages to workers – whether it is increasing the minimum wage or providing family and medical leave – is met with opposition that it will raise costs and put businesses out of business,” he said. “But experience has shown that this is just not the case. Certainly there is every indication that the home care industry is thriving in those states that already provide minimum wage and overtime protection to home care workers.”

“Our overall policy position is that … a broad-based plan to address the workers’ circumstances will only have adverse impact on the workers because the employers do have some options on avoiding overtime,” said William Dombi, vice president for law, National Association for Home Care and Hospice, a trade organization representing home care agencies, hospices and others in the home care industry. “I don’t know. Do the workers prefer higher base wages or overtime?”

And consumers will get hit in their wallets, Dombi said. Those needing in-home care who get their home care workers through a staffing agency that has to pay overtime to its workers will end up paying more money for that care. The majority of families needing home care services aren’t in the fabled 1 percent, he noted.

“It’s one of these difficult choices,” he said. “Who do you protect? Low-income wage earners? These workers who are special people? Or elderly and disabled and some home-bound people? It’s not a great place to be from a choice perspective.”

Once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register, comment will be accepted.

Follow HFN associate editor Stephanie Bouchard on Twitter @SBouchardHFN.