In the next two decades about 78 million baby boomers in the U.S. will turn 65. As they age, a portion of them will be cared for by their families, and others will no doubt enter facilities for the elderly. But many will rely on a growing cadre of domestic in-home workers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the demand for the kind of personal-care aides who can help cook, clean and bathe the elderly and disabled is expected to grow by 70% from 2010 to 2020.
Today, these caregivers often labor in conditions that would not be tolerated in any other industry. They work long hours — some are on call all night; others work 10, 11 or 12 hours straight without extra pay. Some are denied meal breaks because of the nonstop nature of their work. Many are not covered by the minimum-wage laws that govern almost all other jobs (although California workers are). And many are not covered by laws requiring overtime pay. (California workers are not.) In all, according to a national statistical study of domestic workers released last year, nearly half of all domestic workers do not earn enough to adequately support a family.
In-home caregivers were excluded from basic job protections when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938, at a time when such work was generally part time and not typically done by a family breadwinner. Today, however, the vast majority of such workers are female heads of household, and care-giving is their primary occupation. It is time to bring these workers into the modern world.
Two proposals could help. One is a plan by the Obama administration to change federal labor rules to extend minimum-wage protections to in-home caregivers and to guarantee them overtime after a 40-hour week. Second — and simultaneously — there is a bill in the California Legislature that would provide overtime to those workers after an eight-hour day, and guarantee them badly needed meal breaks and the right to use their employers' kitchens to prepare meals. The two proposals complement each other, and both should be approved (although the California bill ought to be amended to match the federal proposal, providing overtime after a 40-hour week rather than an eight-hour day, thus providing more flexibility for workers and their employers).
Critics of these changes argue that requiring individuals and families to pay for such additional benefits could make in-home care prohibitively expensive for many families. And they're right to worry: The high cost of care for the elderly and the disabled is a serious problem that will only get worse as baby boomers retire. Society must begin to address that looming problem.
But to ease the burden on the elderly and the disabled by forcing their low-income caregivers to work without the basic labor protections that other Americans take for granted is simply not fair.
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