The Coalition for Sensible Safeguards (CSS) released a report this month detailing several would-be federal regulations currently delayed by bureaucratic logjams. Business interests lobby the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) and draw out the rule-making process with lawsuits and meetings, often forcing OIRA and other agencies to miss important statutory deadlines. Aptly titled “Down the Regulatory Rabbit Hole: How Corporate Influence, Judicial Review and a Lack of Transparency Delay Crucial Rules and Harm the Public,” the report argues for numerous pending rules that would regulate automobile rearview visibility, silica dust exposure levels for construction workers, coal ash waste containment, imported foods, wage standards for homecare workers, energy efficiency standards and consumer financial protections. What holds this seemingly disparate list of demands together is an urgent cry for an effective federal regulatory system that protects workers and consumers from corporate interests.
At a time when the issue of jobs is a high national priority, one proposal around wage standards for homecare workers stands out. Specifically, CSS calls to expand the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to cover homecare workers, a change that has been under OIRA review for the past two years. Since 1974, homecare workers have been excluded from federal minimum wage and overtime requirements by an exemption intended for casual workers, such as teenage babysitters. However, this rule does not reflect the reality of today’s industry. As CSS reports, homecare is a growing and increasingly formalized industry made up of approximately 2.5 million workers nationally. Outdated labor standards mean that, according to Think Progress, “…many home care workers make below minimum wage and aren’t paid overtime, even if they live with their clients…[and] nearly 40 percent of these workers make so little that they turn to public benefits such as food stamps or Medicaid to get by.”
Prospects for homecare workers at the state level are mixed. While many homecare workers are protected by state minimum wage and overtime laws, 28 states have no such mandates. According to the Paraprofessional Health Institute and National Employment Law Project, in 2010, 15 states granted specific wage and overtime rights to homecare workers while seven states had wage minimums without overtime coverage. Moreover, many of the state wage and overtime protections exclude certain workers such as “personal attendants” and those employed directly by private households.
In the great state of California, approximately 360,000 largely unionized homecare workers are employed by In-Home Supportive Services, a state program subsiding homecare services for around 450,000 elderly, blind, and disabled residents. Since California already extends minimum wage requirements to homecare workers, revising the FLSA would impose new overtime rules on California, costing what detractors estimate at $150 million per year. Among them is California’s Governor Jerry Brown, who the Los Angeles Times reports would likely respond to the new rule by limiting the hours state homecare workers may work, effectively cutting the amount of care beneficiaries receive and pitting advocates for the disabled against labor.
As with the case of homecare workers and the FLSA, our regulatory system speaks to our national values. Rather than pay the true price of elder care, energy, construction, etc., we often opt for the absolute cheapest goods and services. Never mind the external costs to workers and consumers. A strong regulatory system lifts those costs off the backs of our neighbors, protects us from similar harm, and makes us all better off.