Say you’ve got a booming industry, one that already employs 2 million workers in the U.S. and is poised to add 1.3 million additional jobs by 2020. Imagine that the jobs cannot be off-shored, that the work helps decrease federal deficits, and millions of Americans depend on the industry just to get through their daily lives.
Now ask yourself: Should it be legal to pay the workforce of this thriving and essential industry less than the minimum wage?
Currently, it’s perfectly licit. A loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 exempts home-care workers—employees who provide personal care to the elderly and disabled in their homes—from basic work protections like the minimum wage and overtime pay. The rationale, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), was that people providing “companionship services” to seniors and people with disabilities were like casual babysitters.
But this exemption, NELP points out, was never meant to include the extensive housework responsibilities or physically demanding labor of bathing incapacitated clients and helping them use the bathroom that make up a substantial portion of home-care workers’ jobs today. And the image of a neighbor paid to come by occasionally and sit with an elderly parent bears little resemblance to today’s home-care economy, in in which 70 percent of home-care workers are employed by agencies and for-profit corporations dominate the industry. Now, as profits in the home-care industry climbed 9 percent a year from 2001 to 2009, the “companionship exemption” has become a means for companies to avoid fairly compensating workers, who typically earn just over $20,000 a year for full-time work and whose wages may fall below the minimum when time and money transportation clients or traveling between one client’s home and another are factored in.