Delay in Wage Hike for Home Health Workers

 WASHINGTON — The Labor Department announced Tuesday that it plans to delay its enforcement of new minimum wage and overtime protections for the country’s home care workers, though the protections will go into effect as planned.

Workers who tend to the elderly and people with disabilities in their homes had been carved out of the labor protections that cover other hourly workers in the U.S. After a years-long campaign by worker advocates, the White House announced last year that it would extend those rights to roughly 2 million home care workers as part of the president’s economic agenda for low- and middle-income earners.

But pushback against the new rules came from home care companies as well as several state Medicaid programs, which pay the salaries of many home care workers. The National Association of Medicaid Directors recently asked the White House to wait an extra year and a half before rolling out the rule, which was slated to go into effect Jan. 1, 2015, saying its members weren’t yet ready to comply with the new rules.

In a filing with the Federal Register on Tuesday, the Labor Department wrote that the new rules would still go into effect on Jan. 1 as scheduled, but that the agency would not enforce them for the first six months. For the six months following that, the agency would enforce the rules at its discretion.

The decision appears to be a compromise. By delaying enforcement, the Labor Department gives states and companies more time to adjust to the new rules, while also placating groups that were concerned the rules themselves might be in jeopardy.

Labor Department officials explained the decision in a blog post on the agency’s website Tuesday:

We have consistently emphasized the importance of implementing the rule in a manner that both protects consumers and expands wage protections for direct care workers. We believe this non-enforcement policy will help achieve both of those goals.

PHI, an advocacy group for home care workers, said in a statement that the decision means workers “will have to wait as long as another 12 months to receive even the most basic labor protections, guarantees that most other American workers take for granted.”

The Service Employees International Union, which represents an increasing number of home care workers around the country, said that despite the enforcement delay, it was pleased the rules were moving forward. Mary Kay Henry, the union’s president, said SEIU plans to work with state leaders on implementing the rules during the months the Labor Department declines to enforce them.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), said in a statement that he “applaud[ed] the Department of Labor’s efforts to move forward with this critical rule. Both caregivers and the consumers they care for will benefit” from the policy.

The reforms will bring home care workers under the umbrella of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Depression-era law that created a minimum wage and time-and-a-half pay for overtime. Home care workers, who generally earn low wages, have been excluded from those regulations under the so-called “companionship exemption” created by Congress in the 1970’s. Advocates argue that the original exemption was meant to cover casual babysitters but not health care workers.

Some disability rights groups have raised concerns that the reforms raise the cost of home care without increasing funding for it. The advocacy group Adapt criticized the delay in enforcement on Tuesday as insufficient.

“The basic problem with the [overtime] changes is that without funding in place to pay for them, states and provider agencies will simply cap the hours attendants can work to avoid any overtime costs and liability,” the group said in a statement. “This will undercut the ability of people with disabilities and seniors to live in the community.”

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