10/02/2013 05:47 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Wait Is Over: 2 Million Home Care Workers No Longer Excluded From Minimum Wage

For the past 10 years, Laura Lynn Clark has been caring for a woman with intellectual disabilities. She provides full-time care, putting in 199 hours every two weeks. Each morning, she helps her client brush her teeth, wash her face, comb her hair and get dressed. She then
provides breakfast, washes the dishes and makes up the bed. And that's just the beginning of a long, hard day.

Yet, Ms. Clark, who earns less than $9 per hour, has never received federal labor protections. She is not guaranteed the federal minimum wage or time and a half for overtime. But that is about to change.

Our nation's 2 million home care workers secured a long-fought victory in last month when the U.S. Department of Labor announced that, beginning in January 2015, the vast majority of home care aides will no longer be exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act.

A little history: In 1974, the Fair Labor Standards Act was expanded to include domestic workers. But an exception was made for "companions to the elderly and infirm." For nearly 40 years, an ever-growing army of caregivers -- mostly women, and predominately women of color -- has been excluded from federal wage and hour laws.

For the women who do this work, this has meant decades of physical and emotional labor that has been undervalued and underpaid. The work itself is considered "unskilled" despite the fact that most of us would have no clue how to safely move a 90-year-old from bed to chair or help a person with Alzheimer's avoid fear and frustration. And, the workers rarely receive the respect they deserve. Moreover, home care and personal care aides have actually seen their real wages decrease over the last decade. Nearly half of this workforce lives in households that rely on public assistance to support their families.

The new rule gives these workers respect -- and a wage floor on which to build better jobs in the future. On its own, the rule won't move these families into the middle class, but it does say that care work is "real" work that deserves to be recognized. It is a major win for women workers who are the backbone of all of our care professions, and it is a win for America's families that need a stable, skilled workforce to help with the care of millions of aging baby boomers as well as people living with disabilities.

Today, the demand for home care workers is growing astronomically. In fact, to meet the needs of elders and people with disabilities, our nation will need an additional 1.4 million home care workers by 2020. Already families are struggling to manage their care responsibilities -- it is hard to find qualified workers, high turnover (over 50 percent annually) undermines consistency and quality.

Extending the Fair Labor Standards Act to cover home care workers is a first step toward easing that burden. It is absolutely essential to attracting people into the profession and to keeping them in these jobs, as is better training, support and career opportunities. But some worry that this change will increase costs, making care even more unaffordable in the future.

But let's be clear--basic labor protections for those who do this invaluable work is not the major driver behind the unaffordable cost of care. In fact, according to the Department of Labor economic analysis, the increased cost resulting from this rule will be less than one-tenth of one percent. And the home care industry, with $88 billion in revenues in 2011 can well afford to pay their workers fair wages without passing cost increases to consumers. Industry revenue grew 9 percent per year from 2001 to 2010, climbing even during a recession.

We know, from the experience of the 15 states that provide minimum wage and overtime protections to home care workers under state law, that the new rule is unlikely to interfere with the ability of states or the private market to deliver home care services. In fact, several of the states that already provide these protections have been leaders in the effort to move people out of institutions and provide support services in the home. Data has shown no correlation between providing wage and hour protections for home care aides and rates of institutionalization of individuals in need of long-term services and supports.

That said, the U.S. Department of Labor heard concerns among state Medicaid directors and private pay agencies that the new rules would require adjustments that could be disruptive to home care clients. Consequently, the implementation of the new wage and hour protections was delayed by more than a year. Let's hope that those who have opposed the new rules use the next 15 months to make appropriate adjustments -- to minimize any disruption to those who rely on home care services -- rather than to continue efforts to relegate America's fastest-growing workforce to permanent second-class status.