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After 75 years, the FLSA still doesn't protect home care workers

Across the arc of American history, our nation’s labor and employment laws have trended toward greater protection for workers from wage and hour abuse, but there have been setbacks. For example, when the Fair Labor Standards Act was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt 75 years ago, it had been watered down substantially from its original plan, which would have set a maximum workweek of 35 to 40 hours, with a minimum wage of $12 to $15 a week. Instead, the law as passed st the maximum workweek at 44 hours and the minimum wage at $11 a week. Moreover, it only applied to about 20 percent of the labor force.

Between 1933 and 1935, even industries with poor wage and hour records were customarily adhering to a 40-hour work week and a minimum wage of $12 a week, but the law’s progress was interrupted by constitutional issues. By 1991, the federal minimum wage had dropped to a mere $7.25 an hour -- $2.13 for tipped employees -- and has remained there despite increases in the cost of living that have cut the real value of that wage.

Both employment law advocates and many economists believe the economic recovery would speed up, and many workers would be lifted out of poverty, if the minimum wage were raised to $10, or if it were indexed either to inflation or to worker productivity gains. As we consider stabilizing wages for workers currently covered by the FLSA, however, we should keep in mind that more work needs to be done to ensure that all workers receive fair wages for their time and work.

Home care workers are suffering in particular. These workers, who cook, clean and perform other household services -- most often on a professional basis for the elderly or disabled -- are not protected by the FLSA. This is due to a 1974 amendment that exempted such workers by broadly defining their services as providing “companionship.” According to a Huffington Post blogger, this policy has put half a million fully-employed home care workers into such poverty that they must rely on food stamps.

The Labor Department promised to fix that too-broad definition, and it indeed proposed a rule to do so. Despite an executive order requiring the agency that performs a final review of new federal regulations to complete that review within three months of submission by a federal agency, the rule has not been enacted.

It’s time for home care workers to be given the minimum wage, overtime and maximum workweek safeguard they deserve. When will the federal government finally enact these protections?

Source: Huffington Post, “Lessons From the Fair Labor Standards Act,” Katherine McFate, June 26, 2013

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