Home Care

A Big Step Forward for Home Care Workers

On September 17, 2013, homecare workers won important protections in what Salon calls “one of the most significant pro-labor moves to date by the Obama administration.”

On September 17, 2013, homecare workers won important protections in what Salon calls “one of the most significant pro-labor moves to date by the Obama administration.”

The Department of Labor announced new rules requiring employers to pay minimum wage and overtime to workers who provide in-home support to aging and disabled Americans.

Nonprofit advocates cheered the new rules. “These jobs are some of the fastest growing occupations in our industry,” says Sarah Leberstein, a Staff Attorney with the National Employment Law Project. “This rules reform means a lot to the economy as a whole.”

One of the central groups advocating for the new rules, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, put the victory in the context of the broader movement to “win dignity, respect, and labor protections for domestic workers.”

The nonprofits behind the victory. While there was no formal coalition pushing the administration to change the rules, an array of organizations filled different and important roles: from generating research to mobilizing affected workers. This advocacy win illustrates one of the most basic roles nonprofits can play in influencing policy: informing decision-makers, in this case Department of Labor staff, about the needs of their communities.

Crucial role of research. NELP and another nonprofit, the “strategy center” PHI PolicyWorks, focused on the policy aspect of the campaign to change the rules. NELP produced research describing how state laws affect home care workers. Among other things, PHI helped to document the nature of the workforce and the state of wages.

Elevating the voices of workers. Advocates for workers, including grassroots groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Direct Care Alliance, were essential to helping the administration understand the needs of their members.

“It’s a workforce that is somewhat hidden and the issues aren’t always so obvious,” says Leberstein. “The advocates really rallied and did tremendous work to really flesh out for DOL what issues were at stake and push reforms that protect workers but are also common sense and easy to administer.”

Nonprofits organized petition drives and events. They encouraged workers to weigh in during the “public comment period,” an important step in the policy-making process which all federal agencies follow. They found supportive employers who could talk about why the changes would be manageable.

Workers participated at all stages of this process to make clear how the lack of labor protections was hurting them. Nonprofits arranged for workers to fly in to participate in the Department of Labor listening sessions. They stood at the president’s side when he made the September 17 announcement.

Funders making the work possible. The Ford Foundation, Public Welfare Foundation, General Service Foundation, Moriah Fund, and Surdna are among the foundations that Leberstein cites as giving financial support to the organizing, research, education, and activism that achieved the rule changes.

Connecting worker rights to quality care. NELP’s attention must now turn to the actual implementation of the rules. They will focus on spreading information about the new worker rights and encourage “smart and sustained enforcement.”

But first they’re taking a moment to savor the big step forward for this growing and often vulnerable workforce. Leberstein points out how this achievement advances the idea that everybody wins when conditions for workers are improved:

“Standing side by side, workers, employers and providers upended opponents’ zero sum arguments and showed that both quality services and job quality depend on workers gaining basic rights.”

Read more about the history of the effort to reform the Fair Labor Standards Act from NELP: After 75 Years, Minimum Wage Protections Still Elude Home Care Workers