Dick Meister: Home care workers need presidential help

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By Dick Meister

Bay Guardian columnist Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

The country's 2½ million home care workers have been waiting a whole year now for President Obama to make good on his promise to grant them the federal minimum wage and overtime pay protections they so badly need.

The need for immediate presidential action was made abundantly clear in a letter to the White House on Dec. 13 that was released by the National Employment Law Project – NELP, as it's called. The signers include people who are receiving home care, those who employ them and those who provide the care.

NELP's figures show that the average national wage of home care workers, including those working at for-profit home care agencies, is $9.40 an hour. Which means that one in five caregivers live at or below the poverty level, even in the 21 states with minimum wage and overtime laws that cover them.

In almost three-dozen states, the average pay is so low the workers qualify for public assistance. And that, of course, seriously harms the workers and adds to the serious financial burdens of the states that provide the assistance.

Unless the president acts, the situation is only going to get worse, with home care jobs expected to increase by well over a million by the year 2020 as the country's population ages. As NELP says, the home care industry is already one of the fastest growing industries in the country.

Over the next two decades, the population of Americans over 65 will increase to more than 70 million. And the Department of Health and Human Services estimates that by 2050, there will be 27 million Americans needing direct home care.

NELP's director, Christine Owens, notes that "many families rely on home care workers to get our grandparents out of bed in the morning and insure that our neighbors with disabilities live as independently as possible."

As Owens says, extending the federal minimum wage and overtime protections to the workers would be a first important step to improving quality within the home care industry. She notes that the reforms "will be perfectly manageable for the industry and will be good for both consumers and workers."

And, Owens adds, "It's the right thing to do."

Bay Guardian columnist Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.