Plan would lift wages of home care workers

December 15, 2011 - 9:52 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is seeking to extend minimum wage and overtime protections to cover home health care workers, a move that would boost living standards for nearly 2 million domestic employees but could mean higher costs for the elderly and disabled.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis was expected to announce the proposal Thursday at a White House ceremony.

Home care aids have been exempt from federal wage laws since 1974, when they were considered companions to the elderly and compared to neighborhood baby sitters. But the number of full-time home care workers has surged along with the growing number of retirees who need help with a range of daily tasks, from taking the right medication to getting cleaned and dressed.

"These are real jobs as part of a huge and growing industry," said Steve Edelstein, National Policy Director for the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute in New York. "They deserve same basic labor protections that other workers enjoy."

Unions and advocacy groups say nearly half of all home care workers live at or below the poverty level and receive public benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid. Poor working conditions, low wages and high turnover make it challenging to meet the growing demand to provide care for the elderly in their homes instead of in institutions.

With the size of the U.S. population over 65 expected to nearly double in the next 20 years, millions more will rely on long-term health care from domestic workers.

Health services companies that employ home care workers have opposed efforts to expand hour and wage laws, arguing that it would drive up costs for elderly clients who can ill afford it.

"We are in full support of adequate and fair wages of those doing such admirable work," said Jordan Lindsey, a spokesman for the California Association for Health Services at Home. "However, it needs to be carefully balanced with the unique needs of seniors and people with disabilities who need home care and keeping that type of care affordable."

For a patient with dementia who needs 24-hour care, for example, a family is currently allowed to pay home aids at a flat hourly rate. If overtime rules apply, Lindsey said it could triple the cost of care.

Once the Labor Department formally proposes the new rules, there will be a 60-day period for public comments. The rules could take effect early next year.

The Clinton administration initially tried to extend federal wage rules to home aids, but President George W. Bush stopped the effort.