Every once in a while, very rarely, the U.S. Federal Government does something right, good and sweeping to better improve the working conditions of millions of people. These days, most news I read or economic analysis I trust shows things working in the opposite direction, away from right and good progress, toward worse working conditions and unfair labor practices. But this past week we go a glimmer of some good news! The Department of Labor has expanded the Fair Labor Standards Act to include home health care workers, so that these workers (mostly ladies) can take care of themselves while they take care of the rest of us.
When the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938, the very idea of fairness at work in the United States was drastically changed to include now-basic provisions such as minimum wage, the 8 hour day, overtime and the weekend. But the Act wasn’t universal and many types of work were excluded to reflect certain realities of an older model of the economy, such as care workers who were under the “companion exemption” reflecting the era where many of these workers were likely relatives. But also there was probably a tinge of sexism, racism and classism since a lot of these workers were poor women, often of color, who did not have the political organizing opportunities to have their work considered as such within a mainstream view of the labor market.
But a lot has changed in the structure of the American economy since then and the care labor market has become a large and well-established sub-sector of the labor market. Home health care aides have become a basic form of disability care and eldercare as families and individuals have relied less on the moral obligations of family members or being able to have a servant-like maid to care for people when in need.
There are over 1 million home health care workers in the U.S. and 87.6% of them are women, making it the second most female-dominated sub-sector of the education and health services occupations after day care workers. The median income of home health care aides is just over $20,000 per year, which is near-poor and certainly does not afford a high standard of living. These workers are also often very isolated, even if they work for a home health care agency, because their work is usually done one-on-one with the recipients of their services. Workers isolation leads to little free information about standard working conditions and pay, as well as decreased opportunity for solidarity between workers. Home health care workers are also very susceptible to being taken advantage of, since the well-being, if not the life, of their recipients depends on their commitment to their work so they can’t just walk off the job when conditions are bad.
Sociologist Rachel Dwyer argues in her recent journal article The Care Economy? Gender, Economic Restructuring and Job Polarization in the U.S. Labor Market that the expansion of low-paid care work, such as home health care aides, is a driving force behind the polarization of the U.S. labor market. This polarization is the disappearance of middle class jobs, with growth of low wage jobs and fewer and fewer higher pay jobs that are paying more and more. These low-paid care workers tend to have little labor power so they can’t bargain for fair wages and working conditions. This is why it is especially important that these workers have legal protection at work to ensure a basic level of fairness, so that they get paid and get paid well for the crucial work they do taking care of those who cannot care for themselves.
It is also a step in the right direction of acknowledging the labor value of work that is often devalued because of it’s association with women and caring. The exclusion of home health care aides from the FLSA was a sign that we didn’t acknowledge the labor value of this feminine work (in the sense that it is female-dominated and involved commonly female characteristics like caring for those in need) as even deserving basic workplace protections. But as I said above, the expansion and formalization of this work in the economy requires that it finally be incorporated into our basic labor protections.
Plus, the Federal Government actually did something! When was the last time I can think of the government doing something where I could stop and think, “huh, well look at that, effective governing!”? Too long, but hopefully signs of good changes to come. (But I doubt it. I’m oscillating between utter cynicism and forced optimism.)