Hurray for home care workers!

Susanne Hull Frenette

Bring it on home.

Finally, home care workers have new, long-overdue labor rights. The Obama administration just announced a rule change to the Fair Labor Standards Act to guarantee minimum wage and overtime pay for them.

There are more than  2 million home care workers in the U.S. and their net income is often less than minimum wage when you factor in travel time and other costs. Most of the workers are women and/or minorities.

For most of us, it’s a clear choice between home or hospital; between home and nursing home. I like my favorite chair. My bed. My dog. My photos and plants. And I love my yard and my hammock.   When we become ill, the chances of staying in our homes longer is greatly enhanced by the availability of home care workers — the people who bathe, dress and feed those who can’t do it fo themselves; who clean or run errands; who often work in the home alongside home care nurses. It’s not just for when we are elderly, but when we are sick or disabled.

When my mother became ill with Alzheimer’s Disease, my father took on the lion’s share of her care. It was a full-time job, even with the assistance of my sisters who live nearby. As her condition worsened, he was still able to keep her home about another year thanks to some amazing home care workers like Jada and, like my cousin Aimee, who is also a nurse. My mom only had to go into a nursing home for four months before she died; without the home care workers, her stay there would have begun much, much earlier. She loved her home and treasured the view out over the Raquette River and her gardens. I loved sitting in the window with her and looking and talking. When the home care workers came, I had more time to just spend time with my mom in those precious hours. My dad got some help with bathing and feeding her. He got a chance to get out of the house on his own for awhile, a vital need for caregivers.

Once, Jada and I together took my mom out to the Natural History Museum in her town of Tupper Lake, a place where she loved to look at otters and turtles. I’d been there many times with my mom but could no longer do it alone when my mother became unsteady. We had a wonderful time and Jada showed me new activities I could do with my mom to engage her.

In New York City, 60 percent of home care workers make poverty wages, according to “Think Progress,” the blog for Center for American Progress, a progressive public policy research and advocacy organization. Nearly 40 percent of the workforce has to rely on public benefits to make ends meet.  Many work long hours without overtime pay.

The AFL-CIO reports that average hourly home care worker wages are low enough to qualify the workers for public assistance in 34 states.

The number of home care jobs is expected to grow by 70 percent by 2020. Demand will likely be stronger than supply.

It is nice to know that one of the concerns raised at the powerful  March on Washington, which I attended in August, was heard:  Include all workers in the protections provided by the FLSA. The wage protection rule takes effect January 2015. Evelyn Coke, a longtime home care worker, sometimes worked three consecutive 24-hour shifts without overtime. She took her case to the U.S. Supreme Court and it resulted in the decision that prompted Obama’s rule change, according to Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.

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