A Day in the Life of a Domestic Worker

Mention the term elder care and, invariably, the discussion focuses on the so-called 'sandwich generation,' the offspring of the elderly who either move back in with or near to parents so as to better care for them. But for seniors who do not live in close proximity to their children or who desire to maintain a semi-independent lifestyle, one alternative is to enlist a home care worker. Despite the surge in demand for and corresponding growth in the workforce, home care workers remain one of the most vulnerable groups in the labor market. But that can soon change.

According to recently released data, there are currently 2.5million home care workers nationwide and the industry is one of the top five fastest growing job sectors in the country. Home care workers play an indispensable role providing critical services both to the elderly and to individuals with disabilities, but they work long hours for low wages, and the workforce is disproportionately female -- many of them immigrants.

It comes as no surprise that turnover is high, especially when you consider home care workers render services without protections afforded many other workers. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) excludes home care workers from the basic minimum safe and overtime protections. In 1974, Congress extended FLSA protections to domestic workers but excluded two categories -- workers providing companionship services and casual babysitters. The intent of Congress was to exempt the 'elder sitters,' but subsequent regulations by the Department of Labor (DOL) extended the exclusion to home care workers.

Last fall, the Obama administration issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to extend overtime and minimum wage protections to home care workers, then invited interested parties to submit comments to the proposed rule. As the deadline for the commenting period fast approaches, this may be the long awaited opportunity to finally reform the system.

Arlene M. Roberts is the author of the forthcoming report, "A Day in the Life of a Domestic Worker: Caribbean Immigrant Women and the Campaign for Fair Labor Standards."