Ruling on home care workers’ wages will improve care for elderly Mainers

Ruling on home care workers’ wages will improve care for elderly Mainers

New federal rules have just gone into effect that will improve the economic well-being of home care workers. The change could have significant implications for Maine, the oldest state in the nation.

After years of exclusion, in 2014 the Department of Labor took steps to extend minimum wage and overtime protections to the nation’s two million home care workers. For-profit industry groups brought a lawsuit that delayed implementation of these new changes, but on August 21st, workers prevailed when a three-judge panel found unanimously that the Department of Labor acted within its authority. As of this month, these new rules are now in effect.

This change is a long time coming. In 1935, the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed by Congress, guaranteeing the majority of U.S workers basic working standards like the right to minimum wage and overtime. While this was a profound victory for millions of working people, it excluded the vocations most often occupied by the descendants of former slaves: farm workers and domestic workers.

This exclusion has had far-reaching and harmful consequences — consigning domestic workers and home care workers to poverty jobs and preventing the creation of a quality stable workforce needed to care for a growing number of seniors and people with disabilities.

Despite being part of the fastest growing workforce in the country, home care workers are forced to live on poverty wages, struggling to care for their own families even as many of them care for other families’ loved ones. The average wage is just $9.57 an hour, barely enough to rent a one bedroom apartment in many cities, let alone pay for other necessities.

“I worked for a home care agency from 1998 to 2003, and I was forced to be on MaineCare because we had no benefits with a pay rate that was just $7.71 an hour,” explained Ted Rippy in a recent op-ed in the Bangor Daily News. “But still, nine years later, workers are stuck right around that level, with most workers making around $10 an hour.”

In many ways, the workers who provide these crucial services have not changed since the 1930s. They are still largely women, with immigrants and women of color and especially Black women providing a disproportionate amount of the care.

A lack of support for these workers has had dire consequences. Low wages lead to high turnover of workers and the best caregivers forced into other work in search of livable wages. It also means that people with disabilities and seniors often struggle to access quality support and services.

“This is both a victory for home care providers and for every family that may one day depend on the crucial support of a home care provider. The women and men who care for our aging moms, dads and grandparents will now be able to provide for their own families, too,” said Sarita Gupta co-director of the advocacy group Caring Across Generations. “Extending minimum wage and overtime protections to this critical workforce is not just the right thing to do, now it’s the law of the land. This is a great first step toward transforming home care work into high-quality jobs that are good for America. Now it’s up to states to ensure that as they implement this rule, no one is harmed in any way by cuts to home care programs or caps on hours.”

In Maine, it will be up to the state legislature to implement new policies to ensure that home care workers are compensated fairly, in compliance with federal law, without cutting home care services for those who depend on them.

This will include budgeting money in the Medicaid program for two changes:  allowing workers to count travel time when they go from one client to another; and the provision of overtime if a Medicaid consumer requires more than 40 hours of care and cannot find another worker to work with them.

For real support for Maine’s aging population, more will have to be done to build a system where  all home care workers earn living wages and when all Mainers can afford to age and live at home if they choose.  The senior housing bond (Question 2) on the November 3rd ballot and the minimum wage increase championed by Mainers for Fair Wages are two other elements of this broader effort.

Photo via Flickr/Myfuture

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