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Home Care Workers: More than Babysitters

The Supreme Court Monday ruled 9-0 to uphold federal regulations that say home care workers aren't entitled to overtime and minimum wage protections. The Labor Department has said that home care workers are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act, grouping them with maids, cooks, housekeepers, and babysitters as providers of "companionship services."

The decision's not sitting well with some, particularly worker advocates.

"Denying minimum wage and overtime to home care workers hurts both caregivers and the people they care for," said Gerry Hudson, executive vice president of Service Employees International Union, which represents 400,000 U.S. home care workers. (See the Chicago Tribune article here.)

Was the Supreme Court decision wrongheaded?

Mind the Aging Baby Boomers

A number of sources have talked with me about the current shortage of healthcare workers, a dearth that'll worsen as baby boomers--a group of about 78 million--get older and place more demands on the healthcare industry.

So chances are good America will be calling for more workers like those affected by the Supreme Court decision.

Meanwhile, home care workers' pay isn't exactly competitive.

PayScale figures show the median hourly rate for home health aides with between one and four years of experience is $8.80. That's about $17,600 a year for someone working 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year.

A Supreme Court ruling in favor of the workers probably wouldn't solve the problems of low-pay--such a solution will only come when government, business and the labor force work together. But the Supreme Court could have signaled, if only symbolically, that home care workers are more than just babysitters.

Background on the Case

According to the Chicago Tribune:

The decision represents a victory for home care agencies and government officials who argued that changing the rule would drive up costs, straining government reimbursement programs, forcing some providers out of business and jeopardizing care.

Yet even agency representatives said the court ruling does nothing to address the problem of improving working conditions for employees who provide vital services for low pay and few if any benefits.

"That issue doesn't go away," said William Dombi, vice president for law at the National Association for Home Care and Hospice. "It's time now for the businesses to combine with the workers and find solutions to the problem that led to the inability to pay overtime in the first place."

The plaintiff in the case is Evelyn Coke, a 73-year-old Jamaican immigrant employed for more than two decades by a Long Island, N.Y.-based home care agency. She sometimes worked 70 hours a week without overtime pay, including 24-hour shifts when she stayed overnight, until an accident forced her to quit six years ago.

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