Justice for Direct Care Workers

By Liz Ben-Ishai

Unfortunately, the workers we all depend on to keep us healthy and productive are often the ones afforded the least protection and compensation. But the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has finally taken steps towards remedying this pervasive injustice.

Direct care workers–workers who provide home care assistance to older adults and people with illnesses and disabilities–have long been excluded from minimum wage and overtime protections enjoyed by most other classes of workers. Yesterday, the DOL announced a final rule that will end the loophole that has denied these essential service providers fair treatment.

There are nearly two million direct care workers in the United States. Day after day, these men and women perform the often grueling personal care work that so many people depend on to keep them living at home and working. The need for direct care workers is growing rapidly. Beginning in 2011, 10,000 baby boomers began turning 65 every day. The aging population in the U.S. means that more and more of us will depend on the support and care of others to live comfortably in our communities.

The DOL’s Bureau of Labor Statistics identified personal care aides and home health aides as likely to be the fastest growing occupations between 2010 and 2020. Yet, these workers are often paid the least and, until now, have not enjoyed even the most basic wage and overtime protections. As a result of this poor treatment, there is very high turnover among direct care workers – an outcome that is bad for workers, the people they care for, and employers.

The vast majority (90 percent) of direct care workers are women. Families increasingly depend on women to be breadwinners. Yet, as data released yesterday show, women’s wages continue to lag far behind men’s. Only as we begin to improve the quality of jobs in female-dominated professions like direct care work – and as we fight discrimination against women workers, including those who are motherspregnant, and nursing – can we start to chip away at the vast inequalities in our labor force.

Two years ago, President Obama promised to end the exclusion of home care workers from minimum wage and overtime protections two years ago. Yesterday, home care workers and advocates who have fought for justice in this arena for years were finally able to claim victory. We should celebrate this win for some of the most vulnerable workers in our communities and work to ensure that the implementation of the rule in 2015 goes smoothly. Next, it’s time for a higher minimum wage and paid leave for all workers, including direct care workers.