Valuing the Home Care Workforce

By Scott Einbinder, Bend the Arc: a Jewish Partnership for Justice, and Delia de la Vara, Vice President, California Region, NCLR

Senior woman cookingIn a recent Los Angeles Times article, Chris Megerian mis-characterizes the Obama administration’s proposal to extend basic federal labor protections to home care aides as contrary to the needs of people with disabilities.

In California, nearly a half-million workers provide services and supports to elders and people with disabilities through the In Home Supportive Services (IHSS) program. Many more provide support to families who pay privately for assistance for their parents and grandparents who can no longer manage on their own. These home care workers are part of a national workforce that, according to the national nonprofit PHI, numbers at least 2.5 million, and is the fastest-growing workforce in the country. By 2020, this workforce is expected to grow to 4 million workers, larger than the number of teachers educating youth in grades K-12.

In 1974, when home care workers were excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act, they were neighbors and family members who provided a few hours of “eldersitting,” ensuring that grandma was safe while the primary caregiver was out for a few hours. But the needs of individual consumers, families, and communities have changed drastically over the last 40 years. Home care aides today assist people with a wide range of disabilities, from elders with dementia to older adults living with MS to young people with cerebral palsy who need help readying themselves for school or work. All of these individuals cherish their independence and right to live at home and be part of their communities. We cannot build the skilled, stable home and community-based workforce we need for the 21st century using casual, underpaid, and undervalued labor.

Many Californians, stretched by family and work obligations, recognize this truth. Bend the Arc leader David Levitus notes that Rosa, Maria, and Rona, who care for his grandfather and grandmother, struggle to support their own children and parents. “These are talented professionals in their own right,” he says. “It takes skill to establish and maintain a good working relationship with elders. These are hard-working people who deserve the same legal protections other workers enjoy.”

Rosa, Maria, and Rona are typical of the home care workforce. About 90 percent of these workers are women, and roughly half are people of color. In California, almost 4 in 10 home care workers are Latino. As domestic laborers, doing what has long been seen as “women’s work,” they live on the edge of poverty. Without the guarantee of minimum wage or overtime pay that applies to other hourly workers, about 50 percent of home care workers rely on public benefits to support their families.

The Department of Labor’s proposed regulation to extend basic labor protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act to home care workers  dignifies this important work and significantly improves job quality in this vital American industry.  This will help to attract more workers to the field—improving the lives of elders and people with disabilities who have difficulty finding skilled workers—and the economic security of the workforce.

Our organizations advocate for Latinos, a disproportionate number of whom are caregivers, and families in need of in-home supportive services.  Both home care workers and the consumers they serve deserve respect and a decent quality of life.  We strongly believe that with a reasonable adjustment period for the new rules to take effect, valued and supported caregivers would be better able to ensure that people with disabilities can thrive in the setting of their choice.

Einbinder is Chair of Southern California Regional Council, Bend the Arc: a Jewish Partnership for Justice. 

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