Standing with Home Care Workers to Reform a Racial Injustice

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Last Thursday, NELP and many allies gathered at the steps of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to show support for the U.S. Department of Labor’s home care rule. Speakers representing workers, employers, consumer and family caregivers, and advocates spoke to the importance of revising the outdated “companionship exemption.”

In 1974, in a move aimed at correcting an unjust and racist exclusion, Congress extended the minimum wage and overtime protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to almost all domestic service workers. At the same time, it created limited exemptions from the law for casual babysitters and companions for the “aged or infirm.” But Labor Department regulations issued the following year defined “companionship” so broadly that essentially all home care workers were swept up in the companionship exemption. The impact of this overly broad exemption grew as the home care industry, barely in existence four decades ago, ballooned into a major component of our nation’s healthcare system.

This exemption profoundly undercuts the quality of home care jobs—just at a time when the demand for home care is at its greatest. As D’Rosa Davis, who has been a home care worker for eight years and makes only $9 an hour, noted at the press conference, “I do not get any overtime, and my family is just scraping by.” It is unfair and wrong that D’Rosa and the two million home care workers like her can provide cost-saving, quality care without being afforded the most basic federal labor protections of minimum wage and overtime.

Exclusion from FLSA protection has resulted in annual turnover rates of between 50 and 100 percent. As D.C. employer Marla Lahat noted at the event, “If we are serious about providing quality of care to older adults and people with disabilities, we must also be serious about supporting the dedicated and hardworking workers who provide their care.”

This exemption, as speaker Ariela Migdal of the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out, “is a deliberate and racist wrong that stretches back to Depression-era America, where it was written into our nation’s labor law to accommodate Southern segregationists.” As she noted at the press conference and in her May 6th Huffington Post blog post, “This exclusion was a legacy . . . of slavery, during which many enslaved African-American women who didn’t work the fields were forced to provide unpaid household care for white families. . . . The Southern segregationist legislators who controlled many leadership positions in the New Deal Congress, and who voted as a bloc, insisted upon this purposeful exclusion . . . .”  As one Texas legislator put it, “You cannot prescribe the same wages for the black man as for the white man.”

So on Thursday, we shared our support for the Department of Labor rule, which corrects a decades-old injustice that has fueled poverty wages and destabilized an increasingly vital industry. We stood proudly with our allies to voice our support for the long-awaited rules. And when these rules are finalized, we will work to ensure that they are implemented to benefit everyone who depends on the home care system.


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