Black Voices

Obama's Protections For Home Health Workers Could Pay Big Dividends For Blacks, Latinos

As part of President Barack Obama's "We Can't Wait" initiative, through which the administration can draw up laws and regulations to be enacted without the approval of Congress, the U.S. Department of Labor has proposed rules that would provide minimum wage and overtime protections to workers who provide in-home healthcare services such as wound care, assistance with physical therapy and tube feedings.

About 30 percent of the country's home health workers, many of whom work for "poverty wages" as low as $35 a day, are African Americans, according to Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. Some 12 percent are Latino.

The president made the announcement at the White House, surrounded by a group of healthcare workers.

"The nearly 2 million in-home care workers across the country should not have to wait a moment longer for a fair wage," Obama said in a statement. "They work hard and play by the rules and they should see that work and responsibility rewarded. 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."

Twenty-nine states currently do not require a minimum wages or overtime pay for home healthcare workers. It could take several months for the proposed rules to wind through the regulatory process and take effect.

Of the country's 1.79 million home care workers, 1.59 million are employed by staffing agencies. About 92 percent are women, and close to 40 percent rely on public benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps, according to the White House.

"For many seniors, their caregiver is the first face they see in the morning and the last one they see before they go to sleep," said Solis, whose mother emigrated from Nicaragua and worked as a home caregiver when she arrived. She said those who work sometimes 50, 60 or 80 hours a week "work from the heart" and that they deserve wage protections and the right to fair overtime pay.

"Caregivers go to work in millions of American homes every day [helping] the aging and people with disabilities to live at home and in their communities," she said. "They make it possible for millions of families to go to work and know that their loved ones are safe and cared for."

Home care aides have been exempt from federal wage laws since 1974. Back then, these workers were considered companions to the elderly, more or less adult babysitters. But as people are living longer and the ranks of the retired have swelled, the number of full-time home care workers has grown.

According to Solis and the Department of Labor, there are 6 million seniors who need daily assistance to live outside of nursing homes. That number is expected to double by 2030.

House Republicans pounced on Obama for putting his weight behind the rule change. In a joint statement, Reps. John Kline (R-Minn.) and Tim Walberg (R-Mich) said the president was moving forward with a new regulation without considering the costs to businesses.

"Once again, the administration is pursuing new regulations without regard for the potential unintended consequences," they said. "The president's goal is commendable, but the likely result of this new rule is reduced hours for home care workers and higher costs for taxpayers."

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