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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis

Remarks for the Honorable Hilda L. Solis
"Treating In-Home Caregivers as Professionals"
Thursday, December 15, 2011

Good afternoon. Thank you for joining me on the call. Today, I was proud to stand with President Obama as he announced that the U.S. Department of Labor has proposed a new rule to recognize in-home care workers as the professionals that they are. Our proposed rule would extend minimum wage and overtime protections to nearly two million in-home caregivers across America — protections they're currently denied.

These caregivers are dedicated professionals who provide critical in-home services to the elderly and persons with disabilities. These services include tube feeding, wound care, or assistance with physical therapy. Their work allows our loved ones to stay in their homes and live independently.

Currently, workers who provide so-called "companionship services" are exempt from federal minimum wage and overtime pay requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act. When this exemption to the FLSA was established in 1974, it was meant to apply to casual work arrangements like babysitting. It was not intended to cover professionals whose vocation was in-home care service. But the vast majority of today's in-home care workers are professionals working to support themselves and their families.

Over the last quarter century, the jobs of in-home care workers have evolved. Today, they have much greater responsibility for their clients' care, and that care requires greater skill and training.

These professionals work with persons with physical, developmental and intellectual disabilities. They also work with people with chronic or terminal illnesses. Their work is physically demanding and requires sound judgment and compassion to those entrusted to their care.

Professional caregivers are committed to their jobs. This is truly work from the heart, but it's also hard and demanding. So it's time for us to take better care of our nation's caregivers and provide them with the wage protections that they deserve.

Our proposed rule would limit the definition of "companionship services" to "fellowship" and "protection." Examples of such activities are playing cards, visiting with friends and neighbors, taking walks, or engaging in hobbies. Only workers who are employed by households to do fellowship and protection duties would be exempt from overtime and minimum wage pay.

Under the proposed rule, all in-home care workers employed by third party employers, such as staffing agencies, would automatically receive minimum wage and overtime protections. And this is very important: The vast majority of all in-home care workers are employed by third party employers.

Among in-home caregivers, over 92 percent are women, and nearly half are minorities. Thirty percent are African-American. We need to attract more of these professionals to this line of work, because we have a care-giving crisis in America. Due to our aging population, there has been increased demand for long-term, in-home care. Six million seniors need daily assistance to live outside of a nursing home, and that number is expected to double by the year 2030.

This proposal will draw more qualified professionals into the in-home care-giving profession, and it will improve the quality of care for our loved ones. It also will level the playing field for staffing agencies, who will no longer be pressured to underpay their competitors on wages to gain an edge.

Almost half of all in-home caregivers work in states that do not require overtime pay for more than 40 hours worked in a week. Under the proposed rule, these workers would be entitled to overtime payments under federal law. There are 22 states that have extended minimum wage to these workers already. Under our proposal, they would be further protected by the efforts of the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division to educate employers and enforce the law.

Let me close on a personal note: When my mother immigrated to this country from Nicaragua, one of her first jobs was as a caregiver. This was before I was born, but she explained to me how caregivers do some of the hardest and most important work out there. Their work makes all other work possible. They care for the most important elements in their employers' lives: their loved ones. They contribute to our economy and the well-being of our families.

For many seniors, their caregiver is the first face they see in the morning, and the last one they see before they go to sleep. They're often working alone in someone else's home for weeks at a time. They give so much of themselves — physically and emotionally. Not many people think about that, about just how hard and isolating these jobs can actually be. Yet millions of home care workers struggle to get by, living at or near the poverty level. Forty percent of home health aides are currently forced to rely on public benefits like Medicaid and food stamps. That's unacceptable.

It has been my driving mission as Secretary of Labor to raise labor standards and increase protections for all workers, especially our most vulnerable. This proposed rule says to our caregivers: "It's wrong that you can be paid less than the minimum wage. And it's wrong that you can be denied overtime when you work 50, 60 or 80 hours a week."

President Obama and I see caregivers as the professionals that they are, and we look forward to seeing this rule advance through the regulatory process. With that, I will now turn it over to Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.