The Gift of Labor Rights: A Win for Home Care Workers

The Gift of Labor Rights: A Win for Home Care Workers

Mark Engler: The Gift of Labor Rights – A Win for Home Care Workers

Some of America?s most historically exploited workers will be able both to celebrate the holidays and to end 2011 on a high note. Last Thursday, the Obama administration announced that it would extend minimum wage and overtime protections to nearly two million home care workers who had previously been excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act. As the New York Times explains, ?Labor unions and advocates for low-wage workers have pushed for the changes, contending that the…exemption improperly swept these workers, who care for many elderly and disabled Americans, into the same ?companion? category as baby sitters.?

Here at Dissent, Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein examined some of the legal and political implications of the change, noting:

The Obama proposal reflects the growth of the home health industry, ending the myth that the workforce consists of friendly visitors and not women who labor to support themselves and their families. While the job title has changed repeatedly since the 1930s, these workers always have performed a combination of basic bodily care (bathing, dressing, feeding, and ambulation) and housekeeping. Yet state officials, seeking to reduce public costs, opportunistically have acted as though these responsibilities could be cordoned off from each other.

The new DOL proposal updates the domestic service classification by removing anachronistic titles like footmen and adding nannies, home health aides, and personal care aides…. It mandates agency payment for travel time of aides who move between clients over the course of a day, long a source of suppressed earnings. The proposal also tries to close a loophole in record keeping for live-in domestic workers of all sorts by requiring even private household employers to tabulate actual hours worked.

Progressives have been rightly displeased with much of President Obama?s year-end activity?particularly his decision to sign a National Defense Authorization Act that, as the Times said, ?will make indefinite detention and military trials a permanent part of American law.? Yet the Department of Labor action puts at least one bright spot on the map, and it solidifies Labor Secretary Hilda Solis?s standing as one of the administration?s most laudable leaders.

Adding to Boris and Klein?s insights, it is interesting to consider the new rule changes in light of other recent progress made by those organizing domestic workers. I recently profiled the NDWA and its director, Ai-jen Poo. They are running some fantastic campaigns–and, at this point, they are really on a roll in terms of success. In the past two years they have gotten a first-in-the-nation Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights passed in New York State, won a victory at the International Labor Organization, and launched an ambitious and visionary ?Caring Across Generations? campaign. Moreover, they are working to pass versions of the New York bill in other states. (While the most active campaigning is taking place in California, campaigners are also exploring legislation in Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts.)

I spoke with Jill Shenker, field director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), about the Department of Labor’s announced extension of worker protections. ?This is a huge step forward for us,? she said, citing it as a correction of a long-standing injustice. ?These are antiquated laws that relate to history of slavery. The original exclusion of domestic workers from these labor protections in the 1930s was a direct concession to Southern lawmakers who said, ?We?ll pass these [New Deal labor laws] as long as we can exclude farm workers and domestic workers.??

Shenker added, ?So much of our work has been to chip away at legacy of slavery in our labor code and to say farm workers and domestic workers are like any other workers, and they deserve decent working conditions.?

Even with the Department of Labor’s rule changes, there is plenty of need to pass the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in additional states. Shenker notes that ?domestic workers are still excluded from the National Labor Rights Act,? which codifies organizing rights, ?and from Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protections.? Passing the state-level Bills of Rights would help to remedy this, and would also help to address job concerns specifically identified by workers?for example, the right of live-in domestic employees to be able to have kitchen access to prepare their own food, rather than just being expected to have the leftovers of whatever their employers want to eat.

It is also worth noting that the Department of Labor rule changes are not yet final. There will be a sixty-day period for public comment. So take this opportunity to send your comment in favor of the new work rules and to help reinforce the Department of Labor?s resolve that its yuletide extension of labor rights was a thoughtful and welcome move.

Of course, rights are not things that can truly be given as gifts. They must be demanded and asserted, exercised and defended if they are to become real. Such work is precisely what the NDWA has been doing. It’s nice to see that the government is listening.