Meet the Right-Wing Judge Who Just Screwed Over the People Taking Care of Your Grandma

A notoriously pro-corporate U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C., has gutted a Labor Department effort to boost wages for one of America’s lowest-paid and growing professions: home care workers for elderly and disabled people.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon, who in 2012 threw out new labeling standards for cigarette boxes, issued two rulings in recent weeks that will let home care agencies avoid paying minimium wage and overtime for caregivers—allowing management to claim that their workers are “companions” under the law and not caregivers, which allowed the owners to pay less.

“We are deeply disturbed by Judge Leon’s decision,” said Jodi M. Sturgeon, president of the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, which seeks to professionalize eldercare and disability services. “After three full years, the regulatory process has run its course, and America’s 2 million home care workers should not have to wait any longer for fair pay."

The case, Home Care Association of America v. Weil, centered around a new Department of Labor rules that were to take effect on January 1. One new rule said that any homecare worker who spends more than 20 percent of their time as a caregiver—meaning they help with daily tasks such as dressing, bathing, toileting, cooking, giving medicine, going to a doctor, shopping, paying bills, cleaning households—would be paid at least the local minimum wage and overtime after working 40 hours a week.

Nationally, 15 states already have laws requiring homecare workers be paid minimum wage. In the others, an older “companion” loophole allowed caregivers to be exploited.

“The previous [Labor Department] rule was so broad that companies would not have to pay minimum wage and overtime—they called their workers companions,” said Deane Beebe, PHI spokeswoman. “The Department of Labor addresses that with the concept of 20 percent—if they are doing any of these activities more than 20 percent of the time in a 40-hour week—the companies can’t claim they are companions.”

Judge Leon ruled that the Labor Department’s new rules exceeded its authority, striking down its new restrictions on the companion exemption. Industry lawyers praised Leon’s ruling, noting that he created a rationale that skirted a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed the Department to regulate homecare industry workers.

The Department of Labor said it was “studying its options” on whether to appeal.

A Major Low Wage Sector

The home care industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. economy. It has $90 billion in annual revenues and is poised to create 1 million jobs by 2022, PHI said. However, filling those jobs—as Baby Boomers age—will be difficult, PHI said, due to its low wages, poor training opportunities and high injury rates.

Ninety percent of home care workers are women—a majority are women of color—who earn a median wage of $9.61 an hour, PHI said. More than half of home care aides rely on public benefits to support their families, the organization said. The industry has a 50 percent annual turnover rate, meaning half of its workforce changes jobs every year.

“Without the basic guarantee of minimum wage and overtime pay for these workers, families across the nation are more likely to find themselves without access to qualified workers right at the moment when they most need them,” Beebe said.

“It makes good business sense to pay more,” she said. “We have many employers who pay minumum wage. But turnover plagues this industry. The public wants qualified people doing this work.”  

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