Homecare Workers Flood #fightfor15 Rallies,
Wait for President Obama to Act

Home care workers organized by 1199/SEIU march in midtown Manhattan on April 15, 2015.

Home care workers organized by 1199/SEIU march in midtown Manhattan on April 15, 2015.

Homecare and direct care workers were out in droves last night in New York’s #fightfor15 rally that stretched from Columbus Circle to Times Square. Initially billed as an event for fast-food and retail workers, the #fightfor15 day expanded to home care workers, adjunct professors, and low-wage workers in general. In fact, health and home care workers lined up for blocks to participate in this demonstration. So far, home care workers have won the right to unionize in several states. This will clearly be a linchpin in moving this issue forward.

1199/Service Employees International Union (SEIU) led organizing for yesterday’s rally in New York and elsewhere. Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Co-Director of Caring Across Generations, has been out front on in calling for radically altering the long-term-care infrastructure. In her new book, The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America, she proposes integrating access to care and affordability of care, aligning the interests of the workers, the families that they care for, and the quality of care the workers provide. At the heart of Poo’s work is the recognition that home care and domestic workers are not valued and treated with dignity. Elders don’t fare much better.

Looking at her book and other data, it becomes abundantly clear the nation’s 2-3 million home care workers live in poverty. Home care workers are overwhelmingly women, immigrants, and people of color. The health care industry does not value these workers and the workforce is often transient. According to the National Employment Law Project, in 2013, the average income of home care workers was $18,598. Is it any wonder that quality of care is an issue in elder and long-term care?

Are quality improvement proponents targeting the wrong metrics: would they do better to ensure that workers have a living wage and -fair working conditions before they check whether the elderly suffer from bedsores, get infections, or sustain falls? Are they supervised properly, available in sufficient numbers, or is the industry cutting corners?

Yet despite a mantra in health policy circles to tout value-based care, health care leaders and the medical press have proved somewhat inattentive to these pressing issues, which if addressed, would ratchet up worker quality of life, reduce burnout and workforce transiency, and enhance quality of care for patients.

It would be refreshing for health care leaders and the families to back a decent living wage for homecare and direct care workers.

But many Americans may not realize that ever since the Fair Labor Standards Act went into effect in 1938, home care and direct care workers were excluded from basic minimum wage and overtime protection. As Poo points out, this exemption stemmed from racism in the 1930s, when African-Americans provided much of the nation’s domestic work. Southern legislators refused to sign off on the Fair Labor Standards Act, unless farmworkers, domestic workers, and homecare workers were excluded from labor protective legislation. It needs to be changed.

Finally, in September 2013, the fight seemed to be over, when the Department of Labor issued its Home Care Final Rule that extended these protections to the nation’s 2-million home and personal care workers The law was slated to go into effect in January 2015. However, District of Columbia Judge Richard Leon vacated the ruling in Home Care Association of America vs. Weil. The Department of Labor has filed an appeal and action is expected sometime this summer.

Advocates for enhanced worker protections for homecare and direct care workers are hoping that the Obama administration will push this forward shortly. When President Obama ran for election, he promised prompt action on this. Hillary Clinton offered this comment on twitter last night: “Every American deserves a fair shot at success. Fast food & child care workers shouldn’t have to march in streets for living wages. –H.” Clearly advocates for home care workers will want to hear a heck of a lot more before they see Hillary or any other candidate on their side.