LEAD WITH HEART: Obama Walks In Pauline's Shoes

Using the model of the temp agency, the ambiguous legal status of the home as a workplace and the distrust of care labor as “real work,” home agencies have tenaciously held onto the companionship exemption. They do so while getting plenty of public dollars. 

By Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein – New York Times

Not long after announcing his candidacy in 2007, Barack Obama spent a day working alongside Pauline Beck, a home health care aide in Oakland, Calif. Together, they cooked breakfast and lunch, cleaned house and did the laundry. Last December, the president mentioned his day with Ms. Beck when he proposed placing most home-care employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act, from which many of them have long been excluded.

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.”

When Congress actually granted domestic workers the right to a minimum wage and overtime pay three years later, this analogy formed the basis for excluding home aides and attendants. Implementing the new amendments in 1975, the Labor Department redefined home-care workers as “elder companions,” which also had the perverse effect of removing from the law employees of nonprofit social welfare agencies and for-profit manpower firms who previously had F.L.S.A. coverage. READ MORE