The following was written by Keith Kelleher, president of SEIU* Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas.
Last week, working people won a long overdue victory when the Supreme Court decided to let stand a new federal rule that prevents homecare employers from denying their workers minimum wage or overtime pay. The decision will help bring to an end a nearly 80-year policy of discrimination against more than 2 million workers who take care of our nation's elderly and people with disabilities.
It should also serve as a wake-up-call for Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, who is trying to bully thousands of working women of color who care for our state's elderly and people with disabilities into a deal that would deny them the ability to care for their own families.
In 1937 Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which provides basic labor protections many of us take for granted, like the right to earn at least the federal minimum wage or be paid overtime. But powerful lawmakers, largely from the South, made a deliberate choice to exclude the predominantly black and overwhelmingly female domestic workers that kept their homes clean, prepared their meals, did their chores and cared for their children, their aging parents, and their relatives with disabilities.
As the homecare industry grew, agencies exploited this loophole, denying a workforce comprised predominantly of women of color and immigrants basic protections that most American workers take for granted. Unions like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and others helped these homecare workers fight back state by state. Our local union, SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas has helped more than 50,000 homecare workers organize and defeat subminimum wage policies.
Still, the rule against overtime persisted. As a result, Illinois homecare workers could be paid as little as $1 per hour for a significant part of their workday. Lynda Harper is a homecare worker who began providing assistance to people with disabilities in Rock Island three decades ago. When she began as a homecare worker in 1987, she was one of those workers making just $1 an hour. A recent widow at the time, the young mother struggled mightily to make ends meet. Grueling manual labor, long hours and low-pay is a devastating combination, which is why the Supreme Court move not to take up the homecare case was such a victory.
But Gov. Rauner is now trying to snatch that victory away from home care workers in Illinois. Like the southern and northern plutocrats of decades past, the governor wants to use a loophole to deny tens of thousands of homecare workers decent pay. This time, instead of denying overtime pay, he plans to cut the number of hours these workers spend taking care of some of our state's most vulnerable citizens.
Any homecare worker can tell you that caring for a child, a senior, or someone with disabilities isn't a 9 to 5 job. Homecare workers regularly work "off the clock" to provide critical hours of care. Now, Gov. Rauner wants to limit these workers like Lynda to just 40 hours of work per week to avoid paying overtime. Not only would the governor's decision prevent workers like Lynda and tens of thousands more from making ends meet, it would deprive thousands of families the critical care they need to make basic needs. It could even force many seniors and people with disabilities into more expensive institutionalized care.
Gov. Rauner may plead poverty, but the $7 million it would cost to pay home care workers overtime is just 0.02% of the total state budget for this fiscal year. What he really wants to do is use his new policy as a bargaining chip, offering to give it up if homecare workers accept wage freezes, cutbacks in benefits, and other outrageous demands.
For nearly 80 years, women and men of color have been fighting against the injustice baked into our basic workplace rules - and we're winning. Now that the Supreme Court has made its move, Gov. Rauner needs to realize that history is on our side and allow workers the hours they need to do their job well and the pay they need to support their own families.
* The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this website.