Forgotten Labor Force

10.19.14 9:45 AM ET

Finally, Home Care Workers Start Fighting Back

Historically, and today, how well a home care worker is treated depends entirely on the employer. Now, that’s finally changing.

In Wisconsin this week, home care workers—a category which includes the people who take care of the elderly—spent two days protesting the state’s Republican leadership. GOP Governor Scott Walker is no stranger to protests. He is the ideologue who dismantled the state’s public-sector unions, causing teachers to flood the state capitol in protest in 2011. This time, he drew ire by going after the workers who have even fewer protections: those who make minimum wage. The Walker administration had the gall to say that the current minimum wage of $7.25 didn’t need to be raised and provided enough money to live on.

Never mind that a full-time worker who lives alone, without children, making the minimum wage would struggle to stay above the poverty line, and nearly every study places the livable wage at a much higher rate. In response to Walker’s comment, home care workers in the state ramped up their campaign for a $15 minimum wage, joining a growing number of movements around the country.

Home care workers are a new entrant in the fight to raise the minimum wage, one that has been led by fast-food workers around the country for about a year. These workers are some of the most underpaid and mistreated employees in the country, primarily because they work in other people’s homes. These are the nannies, the housecleaners, and the home care workers who do the domestic work that working parents and elderly people can no longer do for themselves. It’s a rapidly growing field. They serve as a bulwark to the modern economy, yet many of them are left out of the most basic workplace protections because oversight is too difficult or because there are loopholes in the laws.

The lack of oversight is perhaps the worst aspect of this type of work. How well a worker is treated depends on what happens inside someone’s private home.  “Maybe you’ll get an employer who will give you time off when you’re sick, provide a couple of weeks of paid vacation, pay you overtime when you work well over 40 hours a week and pay for your health insurance,” Ai-jen Poo, an organizer who won a MacArthur award for her work fighting for domestic workers’ rights this year, told The Washington Post. “Or, maybe you’ll get an employer who forces you to work for up to 100 hours a week, docks your pay when you’re sick and gives you no days off during the year.”

Because they are almost all women and primarily immigrants, they have had little political power to improve their working conditions. Then Poo and other leaders began organizing them and won basic protections in many states. Many hoped for federal legislation as well.

In this Congress, it seemed a non-starter. Then, last year, the Obama administration announced that it would at least take one small action that the executive office had power to do: close a loophole that allowed some workers to be paid less than the minimum wage. Because some of these workers take care of the elderly and are reimbursed through Medicaid, the government can ensure they’re paid fairly.

It’s another sign of one of the big problems of our modern economy. Home care services are some of the fast growing types of jobs, and, just like other jobs in the service sector, they’re low-paying and offer few protections. Corporations are bolstering profits by underpaying workers at the very bottom. States are balancing their budgets by cutting care for the neediest and paying workers and contractors the least amount possible. It’s one of the big reasons so few Americans can take care of their own families, and workers are fighting back.

Under existing law, workers who primarily provide nonprofessional care or companionship to the young or elderly were allowed to be paid less than minimum wage. The justification was that workers like babysitters shouldn’t be covered under heavy regulation.

But the exemption was also born of prejudice and discrimination. When the New Deal laws were passed in FDR’s day, most domestic workers in the South were African American, and the Southern Democrats didn’t want to vote for laws that would protect them. For decades afterward, the profession remained mostly female and was considered less valuable labor than, say, factory work.

Rules governing how those professions were defined should have prevented most workers from being paid less than the minimum wage. In reality, however, some home health care workers who have professional training and provided nursing care to the elderly were falling through the loophole. 

The administration now says there is no longer a special class of workers that can be paid less: all domestic workers must be paid the minimum wage and receive overtime pay like other workers. States started to fight back. Many of these home care workers are paid for by Medicaid because they care for the elderly.

Even liberal states like Illinois and California bemoaned the state budget stress the new rule would cause—$32 million and $600 million, respectively. In response, the Department of Labor, which is in charge of enforcing the new rule, announced that it would delay enforcement for six months, which gives the states more time, but the rule still goes into effect officially on January 1.

“The rule going into effect on schedule sends the signal that workers need to be paid fairly,” says Vicki Shabo, a vice president at the National Partnership for Women and Families. “States need to figure this out. They can’t be scrimping and balancing their budgets on the lowest paid workers, and they can’t cut workers who need care.”

That is the core problem, but the Obama administration is only dealing with one aspect of it, and in the smallest way possible. But workers are taking up their own cause. This week, in Wisconsin and other states, home care workers started protesting to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. They’re joining fast-food workers and other low-wage workers across the country.

Also this week, 25 protesters were arrested outside the Washington, D.C. offices of the Walton Family Foundation to ask the richest family in the country to pay the workers of Wal-Mart, the retail chain that provides all their wealth, $15 an hour. These protests are spreading to more cities, and are getting support from more and more workers. Meanwhile, a proposal to raise the minimum wage to a little more than $10 an hour languishes in Congress.

It’s unlikely this Congress will respond to the needs of America’s underpaid workforce, especially as we gear up to an election season that’s likely to cause some turmoil in both houses. But that hasn’t stopped a growing tide of workers who are willing to raise hell to make a decent wage.