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Policy Matters Ohio

Protections, finally, for a system built on broken labor law

December 10, 2015

Protections, finally, for a system built on broken labor law

December 10, 2015

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New rules proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor will stabilize the home-care industry by extending wage and hour protections to the dedicated, often low-wage employees who take care of our parents and our relatives with disabilities. Delayed by lawsuits, these new rules have now been recognized as the law of the land. But home-care workers, employers and patients alike are worried about how they will be affected.

The Fair Labor Standards Act is the law that requires employers to pay at least the federal minimum wage and to pay overtime after 40 hours of work in a week. You might have thought that every American was entitled to these most basic standards, but some employees have always been left behind. The new rules extend these basic workplace protections to home-care workers, long excluded under what is known as the “companionship” exemption.

Home health workers provide care for people with disabilities, advanced age or illness. This was once considered an informal sector, like babysitting, but it has become one of Ohio’s largest and fastest-growing occupations. It provides critical services to many thousands of our most vulnerable neighbors and friends. More than 86,000 people work as home health-care aides or personal-care attendants in Ohio. They deserve the same protections as someone who works in a steel mill, office or shop.

Last summer, the Columbus Dispatch found many home health-care workers are not paid for the time they drive from the home of one client to the next. Nationally, experts say that 9 to 12 percent of home-care workers are on the job more than 40 hours per week but often don’t get overtime pay for overtime hours. In too many cases, they get no pay at all for these “invisible” hours – because they don’t even fill out a time sheet.

In fact, home care workers put in many hours, often too many, and the hours are unpredictable. These women – and they are mostly women – keep our loved ones healthy, but they themselves often don’t get benefits like health care or retirement. Wages are low, and turnover is high.

In Ohio, where home-care workers already earn minimum wage, the new rules will ensure they fill out time sheets according to specific national definitions of what constitutes work. Outside patient homes, these workers also put in time being on call and writing up paperwork.  The primary benefit of the new rules will be actual pay for hours worked and overtime pay for hours over 40 per week.

I’ve already gotten worried calls from patients, employers, and workers themselves:

“But I need the night shift – I have to work 60 hours a week to pay rent!” a worker says.

“I have to employ people 60 hours per week – the clients need it! How will I pay overtime?” asks an employer.

“My mother has a budget for care,” a daughter says. “How will this impact her services?”

The answer is that neither employees nor patients should be punished because of inadequate funding. Home-care jobs are largely publicly financed. Medicaid and Medicare fund 80 percent of this work. This money either flows through agencies that employ home aides or goes directly to aides working independently, employed by the patient.

It is inadequately financed because it has been built on faulty labor law.  The problem is not the new rules, which fix the broken foundation. The problem is lack of adequate resources to care for our neighbors who are disabled, ill or aged.

When taxes are cut, resources for services dwindle. Cutting taxes on the wealthy has made the top 1 percent of Americans unbelievably rich. But resources to pay home-care workers a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work are stretched. Patients are understandably worried. Our response must be adequate funding.

Together, we create humane ways to help each other. These new rules force us all to recognize the needs of our families and neighbors, the contribution of home-care workers, and the importance of fair labor laws to all of us.

-- Wendy Patton

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Wendy is Policy Matters' senior project director.




2015Minimum WageWendy PattonWork & Wages

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