The United States Supreme Court ruled yesterday against a home care aide from Queens and upheld federal regulations that exempt most home care workers from minimum-wage and overtime protections.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he would seek to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to ensure that home aides were protected. He said the court decision highlighted “a significant gap in the protections of our laws,” and added that he would work with his colleagues “on a fair solution that treats these hardworking caregivers with the dignity and respect they deserve”.
The home care aide’s name was Evelyn Coke, and she died in 2009:
Year in and year out, Evelyn Coke left her Queens house early to go to the homes of elderly, sick, often dying people. She bathed them, cooked for them, helped them dress and monitored their medications. She sometimes worked three consecutive 24-hour shifts. She loved the work, but she earned only around $7 an hour and got no overtime pay. For years Ms. Coke, a single mother of five, quietly grumbled, and then, quite uncharacteristically, rebelled. In a case that reached the Supreme Court in 2007, Ms. Coke sued to reverse federal labor regulations that exempt home care agencies from having to pay overtime.
The Obama administration proposed regulations on Thursday to give the nation’s nearly two million home care workers minimum wage and overtime protections. Those workers have long been exempted from coverage. Labor unions and advocates for low-wage workers have pushed for the changes, contending that the 37-year-old exemption improperly swept these workers, who care for many elderly and disabled Americans, into the same “companion” category as baby sitters. The administration’s move calls for home care aides to be protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the nation’s main wage and hour law.
The White House said 92 percent of these workers were women, nearly 30 percent were African-American and 12 percent Hispanic. Nearly 40 percent rely on public benefits like Medicaid and food stamps. While industry experts say an overwhelming majority are paid at least the minimum wage, many do not receive a time-and-a-half premium when they work more than 40 hours a week. Twenty-two states do not include home health care workers under their wage and hour laws.
Noting that nearly 90 percent of the nation’s home care aides work for agencies, Labor Department officials said such aides would receive the new wage and hour protections. The department said some companions employed by individuals for activities like helping them take walks or engage in hobbies would still be exempt from minimum wage and overtime coverage.
Medicare and Medicaid cover 75% of the cost of home care aides, but nursing homes, the alternative to home care, are ruinously expensive for state and federal governments. Home care aides are a good deal all around, so we should pay them, don’t you think? We’ll hear the usual screeching from conservative politicians and lobbyists but if this bloviating, useless gas bag can make $1.6 million for lobbying members of Congress we can certainly afford time and a half for the women who care for the people who can’t work anymore. If we can’t, if we can’t pay these workers properly, when 40% of them are eligible for food stamps, then all that bullshit we’re always spouting about the inherent dignity of honest labor is about as meaningful as any of the 676 GOP debates on cable television.
Evelyn Coke lost her court case, and Kennedy didn’t get it done in the time he had, but I’m sure both Kennedy and Ms. Coke would be pleased to know advocates kept pushing until they won.