Mr. Obama proposed revising a Labor Department rule so that it would give home attendants and aides the protections, like overtime pay, that most American workers take for granted. The department opened an extended comment period and received some 26,000 statements, two-thirds of them positive. It is now deliberating on a final rule.
With a work force of about 2.5 million, two-thirds of whom would be affected by the proposed rule, home health and personal care is the second-fastest-growing job category in the country, projected to double by 2018. As women, immigrants and service workers have become the new face of labor, what happens to home care matters for the shape of our economy, the fate of unionism and the establishment of a decent standard of living for all.
Mr. Obama’s proposal has come up against Republican opposition. On June 7, a dozen Senate Republicans, led by Mike Johanns of Nebraska, sought to pre-empt Mr. Obama’s initiative and consign home-care workers to perpetual second-class status. Senator Johanns introduced the Companionship Exemption Protection Act, which would permanently codify their exclusion by defining “companionship services” to include “meal preparation, bed making, washing of clothes, errands” and “assistance with incontinence and grooming.” In assuming that adequate care can come only from suppressing wages, these Republicans seek to pit the interests of care receivers and givers against one another.
To understand this talk about “companionship exemptions,” we have to go back to the 1970s, when domestic servants received the F.L.S.A. protections denied to them under the original law in 1938. During a debate in 1971 about extending the act, Senator Harrison A. Williams Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, compared home health care aides to baby sitters: “ ‘companion,’ as we mean it, is in the same role — to be there and to watch an older person.”