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Fair Pay for Hard Work

Something akin to justice may finally be at hand for the nation’s nearly two million home care aides.  It has been four years since the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Evelyn Coke, who then was a 73-year-old home care aide for the elderly who had sued her employer — a for-profit agency — for years of unpaid overtime. No one disputed that Ms. Coke had worked extra hours for no extra pay. But a 1974 regulation defined home care aides as “companions,” like teenage baby sitters, a definition that exempts home care agencies from having to pay the federal minimum wage or time-and-a-half for overtime.  The justices appeared sympathetic to Ms. Coke, whose work for the elderly included helping to feed, dress and move them, in addition to keeping house. But they ruled that only the Labor Department or Congress had the power to change the companionship regulation.  Washington then dragged its feet on the issue, in part, because the plight of home care workers was mired in the broader debate over health care reform. But the Office of Management and Budget recently agreed to conduct a financial assessment of a proposal from the Labor Department to change the companionship exemption. That is a good sign. The budget office, which must perform an assessment before a proposal can move forward, could have turned down a request for review if it had objected to the proposal.

The exact content of the proposal will not be known until it emerges from the budget office. To be effective, a new rule must state clearly that home care aides are not excluded companions and that agencies that hire them must abide by established federal labor protections.  That would be a victory on several fronts. Home care workers, most of whom are female, low-income and minorities or immigrants, would get long-denied legal protections. Better pay and hours would reduce their broad reliance on food stamps and other public assistance.  Critics will no doubt argue that federal labor protections for home care workers will drive up the cost of Medicaid, which covers many home care bills. Denying overtime is not an acceptable way to keep costs down. It’s also economically flawed.  (click on link to read full story)

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