A rule that should be changed

Kim Bobo |

When my mother became ill a few years ago, she began to need assistance with basic living tasks.  My sister and I debated how best to help her. She desperately wanted to remain in her own apartment. We hired a caregiver through an agency to help her, so we could be assured of regular care and we wouldn't have to handle all the payroll issues. Matilda worked long hours, doing tasks that were often both back breaking and heart breaking, and was a blessing to my mother in the last days of her life.

The Department of Labor has proposed a new rule to extend Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) coverage – basically minimum wage and overtime coverage – to home care workers employed by agencies. That rule should be enacted without delay.

As my mom's health declined, we gradually added more hours.  Sometimes there were two women who cared for her, but my mom really preferred Matilda, and so did we. Matilda was smart, caring and funny. She and my mom would joke with one another, and occasionally fuss at one another. 

The caregiving work for a frail elderly person with dementia is difficult. The weekends I cared for mom were physically and mentally exhausting. My mom was a large woman and moving her in and out of the bed, bath and wheelchair was hard.  She loved to read and do crossword puzzles and was angry about losing her ability to do both, which she sometimes took out on those of us around her. Keeping track of her pills required charts for all of us. I learned incredible admiration for the skills of good caregivers.

In the last few months of her life, mom really was way too frail to be living in her own apartment, but she had previously made my sister and me promise that we wouldn’t move her into a nursing home. She also wanted to remain near her friends. Matilda said she would like to pick up more hours.

By this point, we realized that mom needed more than 40 hours per week of care.   I called the homecare agency and explained that we wanted to pay overtime for the hours over 40.  The caregiver agency, based in Virginia, carefully explained to me that the law did not require overtime premiums for more than 40 hours.  Because we were asking Matilda to be away from her own family to care for our mom, it only seemed fair to us that Matilda should be paid a premium for working more than 40 hours per week.

The owner of the agency seemed a bit surprised.  He claimed he’d never had anyone offer to pay more, but he in turn said that he would not charge us any additional agency fee for the hours over 40.  We readily accepted his offer. 

A few months later, when my mom passed away, Matilda joined us in weeping. She attended the family funeral. On the first anniversary of my mom’s death, she called me. For the last year of mom’s life, she had become part of our family. 

She deserved overtime for her work.

Most, but not all, home care workers, receive minimum wage or a bit higher, but seldom enough to get them out of poverty.  Most do not receive overtime pay. 

The new rule being proposed by the Department of Labor would extend Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) coverage – ensuring at least minimum wage and overtime coverage – to home care workers employed by agencies. This long overdue rule would protect hardworking employees like Matilda. 

The multi-billion dollar home care industry is waging a full-scale campaign against the common sense rule, claiming the sky will fall if this rule is enacted. The industry claims seniors will be left unattended and jobs will be lost. Most home care companies are “for profit” firms. They are profiting by charging high and paying workers low. Large employment firms like home care agencies should be required to abide by the nation’s core standards. These scare tactics should be ignored and common sense should prevail. 

Home care workers are an important and growing segment of the workforce.  They do difficult and critically important work for families and the society. There is no good reason for them to be exempt from either minimum wage or overtime regulations.

Kim Bobo is the Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice and author of Wage Theft in America: Why millions of working Americans are not getting paid and what we can do about it.