As the Baby Boomer generation begins its journey into old age, US families will increasingly be turning to home care workers to help their loved ones around the house once they are too sick or elderly to take care of themselves.
But even though the Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted the job to be the second fastest-growing profession over the next several years, workers in the field — personal care aides and home health aides, known as “home care workers” — earn less than $10 an hour, on average, and in many states they are not protected by minimum wage laws.
But that should be changing soon.
Congress passed a law last year requiring employers to pay care workers, who are not registered nurses, at least minimum wage. However, the Obama administration announced this month that its implementation will be delayed until June 30, 2015.
If you’re wondering how roughly 2 million American workers wound up not being covered by federal minimum wage laws, the answer is pretty interesting, if also somewhat depressing.
When we asked National Domestic Workers Alliance director Ai-jen Poo, she explained that home care worker’s exclusion dates back to the passage of the first federal minimum wage law in 1938.
Poo says that the authors of that law carved out an exemption for farmers and domestic workers, most of whom were black, in order to get southern Congressmen to vote for it.
In the 1970s, an amendment was made to extend the federal minimum wage to farm workers, but domestic caretakers were left out because they were seen not as legitimate workers but rather as “companions” to the people they cared for.
“The new law will close the loop on 75 years of exclusion for this group of workers,” says Poo, a recent MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, in an interview with Business Insider.
In some ways, the stigma has stuck with home care workers, 90% of whom are women and about half of whom are black or Hispanic.
Twenty-one states have passed their own minimum wage laws for domestic care workers, but the average pay nationwide is still less than $10 an hour — even though the workers are providing draining emotional care to people when they need it most.
The job often requires caretakers to do heavy lifting and forces people to work in isolation in someone else’s home. Poo says home care workers also struggle to control their hours, with some not getting enough work to pay the bills and others having to work grueling round-the-clock shifts for weeks at a time.
The labor organizer says the next steps to making the job more hospitable are helping workers get better control over their hours, find easier access to healthcare, and earn a $15 an hour living wage.
And with 4 million Americans turning 65 every year, she says it will be extremely important to make sure the aides are well taken care of.
“There’s just no way around the realization that we’re going to need a more robust and exponentially larger workforce than we currently have to support our needs,” Poo says. “Stabilizing the workforce and making it a profession you can support your family on and take pride in is going to be key.”