Obama Shuts Jim Crow Era Labor-Law Loop Hole for Home Care Workers

President Obama and Secretary of Labor Solis announced nearly 2 million homecare workers will soon have federal overtime and minimum wage protections. These workers, among others, were left out of 1930s laws at behest of Southern white lawmakers.

By Jorge Rivas Dec 16, 2011

On Thursday, President Obama and Secretary of Labor Solis announced that the U.S. Department of Labor will move forward to amend regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act to include the nearly 2 million homecare workers who are currently excluded from federal overtime and minimum wage protections.

"They work hard and play by the rules," Obama said about the homecare workers that often bathe, feed and administer medical care for patients–sometimes, days, nights and weeks at a time. "Today’s action will ensure that these men and women get paid fairly for a service that a growing number of older Americans couldn’t live without," Obama said in a statement.

Of the 1.79 million home care workers, 1.59 million are employed by staffing agencies of which over 92% are women, nearly 30% are African American, 12% are Latino and close to 40% rely on public benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps, according to the White House.

"The vast majority of these workers are women, many of whom serve as the primary breadwinner for their families. This proposed regulation would ensure that their work is properly classified so they receive appropriate compensation and that employers who have been treating these workers fairly are no longer at a competitive disadvantage," said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis.

Currently, workers classified as ‘companions’ are exempt from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime pay requirements. 

Below is an excerpt from a story Colorlines.com publisher Rinku Sen wrote explaining which jobs have been carved out of labor laws and the racial history behind it:

The Roosevelt administration passed many enduring economic reforms in the 1930’s, including the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act. The latter made it easier for workers to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers. Domestic and farmworkers, however, were explicitly excluded from both laws, a deal that allowed Roosevelt to gather the votes of Southern, white congress members, among others. At the time, 95 percent of domestic workers were black women in the South. Most agricultural workers were Black, Filipino or Mexican.

While Roosevelt’s labor protections have expanded over time (farmworkers were included in 1966), the combination of formal exclusion and practical non-enforcement still leaves millions of workers on their own. Most Americans don’t likely know the broad swath of workers who aren’t protected by labor laws. They include, for instance, workers who are considered independent contractors (such as taxi drivers and home daycare providers) and people working for tips (restaurant servers and runners haven’t seen their federal minimum wage rise in 20 years). Workers who receive public benefits through workfare programs, immigrant workers (day laborers, guest workers) and workers in right-to-work states are all excluded from varying sets of rights, either deliberately or by the lack of enforcement. Formerly incarcerated workers are subject to background checks when they apply for jobs, regardless of the severity of their conviction or the amount of time that has lapsed.

In 2007, homecare workers’ wage protections made national headlines when the Supreme Court ruled that Evelyn Coke, a home care worker in New York who worked as much as 70 hours a week, was not entitled to overtime pay under existing regulations.

"Today marks an enormous step forward to correct an injustice against hard-working Americans that has also hampered our ability to address the growing long-term care crisis in our country," Mary Kay Henry, President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) said in a statement yesterday.

"Now more than ever, every job in our country must be a good job that can sustain a family, strengthen our communities and move our country forward. Very soon, every caregiver in America will be equal in the eyes of the law and equally protected," Henry went on to say.

"This day will be a day that makes Evelyn Coke — and every American — very proud," Henry said.