Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Tuesday October 1st, 2013, 2:21pm

New Protections For Home Health Workers Paves Way For Domestic Workers Bill Of Rights

Last month, the U.S. Department of Labor announced new regulations that would grant millions of in-home health care workers the right to a minimum wage and overtime pay as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act. 

Under the Labor Department's new rule, which takes effect January 1, 2015, nearly 2 million workers who provide direct in-home assistance to the elderly and those with disabilities, illnesses or injuries would be entitled to the same basic labor protections most American workers already receive. 

Since 1974, direct care workers have been excluded from federal minimum wage and overtime laws after being put into a "companion services" category, which is the same as babysitters and is a group that is exempt from such protections.

Illinois, along with 14 other states, however, already extend state minimum wage and overtime protections to direct care workers, so the new rule won't have as big of an impact in the Prairie State as compared to others.

Nonetheless, Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said the new regulations are a crucial step forward in the effort to stabilize a rapidly-growing workforce comprised of mainly women, particularly women of color and immigrants.

“This change is a long overdue show of respect for women in the workplace and for the important work of supporting seniors and people with disabilities," Poo said in a statement.

Out of the 40 million people over the age of 65 in the U.S., some six million require daily in-home assistance, according to the federal government. 

The Caring Across Generations coalitions says someone in America turns 65 every 8 seconds. That means by 2020, 5 million direct care workers, or double the industry's current workforce, would be needed to meet the demand for care.

Though the extended protections are not that significant in Illinois, Ania Jakubek, a domestic worker organizer with Arise Chicago, said it's a "big change" for the workforce over all.

But the problem, she said, is that the same protections are not guaranteed to housekeepers and domestic workers who do not provide direct care, she said.

The Labor Department's announcement, however, would certainly help organizers rally support for a state measure looking to recognize the legal rights of all Illinois domestic workers during next year's legislative session, Jakubek noted.

Back in February, State Sen. Ira Silverstein (D-Chicago) introduced the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights Act, SB 1708, but the legislation failed to make it out of committee before the spring session ended. Jakubek said the bill's supporters plan to "start fresh" and reintroduce the measure after the fall veto session.

Among many things, the bill would mandate employers of nannies, house cleaners and caregivers to pay their workers no less than the minimum wage and allow for a least one day off a week. The measure also calls for written contracts and the right to paid time off, pay for all work hours, meal and rest periods, and an environment free from sexual harassment.

Some of these protections are laid out in the Labor Department's new regulations, but a Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights would ensure that they are enforced at the state level and extended to all in-home workers, Jakubek said.

Last week, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed his state's Domestic Workers Bill of Rights into law, making it the second state to ensure various labor protections, including overtime pay, for domestic workers. Supporters had been fighting for such a measure in the state for seven years. New York was the first state to pass a version of the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights back in 2010.

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