Sunday, March 25, 2007

Revisiting the Minimum Wage: Home Health Care Aides

It's a little-known fact that there are millions of Americans who are not covered by the national minimum wage (now set at $5.15 an hour). These include workers with disabilities, babysitters, federal criminal investigators, of course waitresses and food servers (who are covered by a patchwork of state laws), and fishermen. Also listed are 'companions to the elderly', a category that includes the rapidly-growing sector of home health care aides. These are workers for county governments, private companies, and non-profits. They attend to every personal need of house-bound elderly with no one else to take care of them. They literally feed and bathe the old that many would prefer not to see. It's an invaluable service to society.

But they are not eligible for the basic right to a criminally low wage (a wage, I might add, that hasn't been raised in ten years, while Congress has raised its pay up to $31,000 in the same time period). They're also not eligible for overtime, meaning they can worked to their breaking point with no relief. Think about that. They're taking care of your parents and grandparents.

So Ms. Evelyn Coke (Supported by the SEIU, and the AARP) has filed suit for back wages. That suit will go to the Supreme Court. Ms. Coke worked up to three 24-hour days a week during some parts of her career, and is now too old and sick to continue work herself. Opposing her are a collection of employing agencies, and interestingly billionaire NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. They're claiming that to bring these people up to the federally-mandated minimum would bankrupt their agencies and deny elderly the proper care that they're due.

They're not arguing that these people don't deserve the money, just that if they earn it, they'll bankrupt the system. Of course, Michael could just cough up the $250 million himself, and he'd still be sitting pretty. He might help 60,000 people by doing so, however, so it's not likely to happen.

But this raises some questions. Why are some employees exempt from the law at all? Even if the suit prevails, employees hired by individual families still won't be covered. Categories like the ones mentioned above will not be affected by the suit. Is it just to avoid paying people what the law says is the absolute minimum that a human's labor is worth? The lawyer for Ms. Coke said that the law isn't intended to apply to 'neighbor-to-neighbor' relationships like babysitting, and that since the home healthcare industry has blown up, it should be clearly covered by the minimum wage. But shouldn't your relationships with your neighbors be governed by laws like the minimum wage?

(Ms. Coke and her son--NYT)

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