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Lee A. Saunders Headshot

States Must Find Way to Do Right by Home Care Workers

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When does justice delayed become justice denied? For the nation's 2 million home care workers, that time may be here. But states have the power to rectify the situation, and they should.

Home care workers are in communities all across America, providing help with fundamental daily activities such as dressing, bathing and preparing meals for elderly individuals and people with disabilities.

Despite the critical role they play, you may not notice home care workers in your community until you, or someone you love, need their services. And, frankly, they are also sometimes overlooked in our society for other reasons: The workforce is predominantly female, more than half are women of color and approximately one-quarter are immigrants.

Their work can be both physically and emotionally demanding. But the home care workers I've talked to, and I've talked to a lot, have told me they love their work, despite its challenges. Unfortunately, positive feelings about your work can't pay the bills: A little over half of all home care workers in the United States are forced to rely on some form of public assistance just to get by.

One reason that many home care workers' lives are so economically precarious is that historically they have been exempt from minimum wage and overtime protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). President Obama gave these workers hope that their service would be more fairly rewarded in December 2011, when he announced a new federal rule that would make the majority of home care workers eligible for FLSA protections.

With much anticipation, workers who had been denied these fundamental protections for 40 years waited until the Department of Labor issued the final rule in September of last year. But the agency decided that states needed more time to plan for overtime costs to their state Medicaid programs, so they announced a 16-month phase-in before the rule would become effective on January 1, 2015. And home care workers were asked to wait a little longer for that fair shake they had been told was their due.

Now, some states are saying they need still more time to get ready for this change, and are asking for yet another delay in the rule.

To ask these workers -- who earn $17,000 a year on average, with a quarter of them earning below the poverty line -- to wait yet again for their work to be valued by our society is disheartening. But it doesn't have to be this way.

A state's budget should be an articulation of the values of its citizens. We elect officials to ensure that these values are reflected in policy. Sometimes, that means hard choices. But at the end of the day, I believe that, guided by federal law, states can and will do the right thing by homecare workers.

Now is not the time for head-scratching and inertia. While another delay prolongs the economic vulnerability of these workers, it also gives the rule's opponents time to mount efforts to repeal it.

If ever a policy choice represented Dr. King's entreaty about the fierce urgency of now, it is this one. Our nation's home care workers are only asking for what is due to them, and they have waited for too long already.