Home care workers should get standard labor protections.
President Obama is proposing an adjustment to laws governing working conditions for approximately 2 million workers whose job is helping elderly and disabled people with such basic tasks as eating, caring for their wounds and doing physical therapy. Under the Obama proposal, these workers would have to be paid at least a minimum wage and overtime, bringing them under the aegis of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Some Republicans are opposed to the measure, complaining that it will be expensive (government programs pay for much of home care) and may hurt the people it is intended to help.
Home care workers provide necessary services that allow their patients to live at home. With the portion of the population represented by elderly people growing rapidly, the services of these workers is a valuable alternative to institutionalization. They interact with the patients sometimes in very intimate situations and treat them with compassion and patience.
Ninety-two percent of home care workers are women. Nearly 30 percent of them are black and 12 percent are Latina. Almost half of them have to rely on food stamps and Medicaid to supplement their wages.
When the Fair Labor Standards Act was last changed about 37 years ago, Congress decided to exclude home care workers from the provisions covering minimum wage and overtime pay and instead put them in the same category as baby sitters. That decision was part of a tradition in this country of devaluing women’s work, and it helped perpetuate the trend of the feminization of poverty. The proposed change in the regulations would be another step toward ending this tradition and halting this trend.
Obama is right. We need to extend basic protections to home care workers.
Starita Smith, Ph.D., teaches sociology at the University of North Texas. She was an award-winning journalist at the Gary Post-Tribune, the Columbus Dispatch and the Austin American-Statesman. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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