Care industry workers need protection from wage theft by their employers

Disabled senior women staying in care home

The U.S. Department of Labor today announced that an ongoing nationwide effort by its Wage and Hour Division focused on improving compliance by residential care, nursing facilities, home health services and other care-focused industry employers has made significant progress in protecting workers’ rights and protections.

Wage theft happens when employers deliberately pay workers below the minimum wage, deny them meal or rest breaks, fail to pay overtime premiums, and otherwise cheat the people whose labor makes them rich while care givers often face terrible conditions that only worsened during the pandemic.

Since its 2021 launch, the initiative has completed more than 1,600 investigations and identified violations in 80 percent of its reviews.

These investigations recovered more than $28.6 million in back wages and damages for nearly 25,000 workers, and led to assessments of nearly $1.3 million in civil monetary penalties for employers who willfully violated federal law.

Its reviews of residential care facilities, nursing facilities and home health providers found the most common violations discovered by investigators related to failures to pay overtime or federal minimum wages or the misclassification of employees as independent contractors.

The initiative found violations often hurt women of color – particularly in the Black, African American, Hispanic and Asian, including Filipina, communities – who are often employed as home care aides, certified nursing aides and licensed practical nurses.

The care industry workers, who are almost all women and predominantly people of color or immigrants, have been long shut out from social protections that other workers enjoy.

“In the U.S., women make up more than 80 percent of the people employed as nursing assistants, home and personal care workers and a disproportionate number are women of color, notably Black women. These dedicated professionals work long hours to provide compassionate care to people in need,” said Wage and Hour Division Principal Deputy Administrator Jessica Looman. “Yet too many find themselves working for employers who deprive them of their full wages and benefits they’ve earned for their hard work. We are determined to make sure these workers’ rights are respected and protected.”

In addition to recovering back wages for the affected workers, the division’s effort includes outreach programs to educate workers and employers about their respective rights and responsibilities under federal law, and how to report and avoid violations of federal law.

As part of the effort, the division is hosting a webinar on federal protections for care industry workers on Thursday, Nov. 17, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. EST. Attendance is free but registration is necessary.

For more information about care workers’ rightshow to file a complaint, the FLSA and other laws enforced by the division, contact the toll-free helpline at 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243). Calls can be answered confidentially in over 200 languages, regardless of immigration status. Learn more about the Wage and Hour Division and its searchable workers owed wages database.

Readers may download the agency’s new Timesheet App for Android and iOS devices to ensure hours and pay are accurate, but while the Biden administration’s initiative is more than exploited workers have had in the past, it is still not enough.

“There are several carve outs that exist in New Jersey’s minimum wage law excluding youth workers, employees at summer camps, college students, interns, school-to-work programs, tipped workers and farm workers from earning fair wages,” said Lisa McCormick, one of the Garden State’s leading progressive champions. “To combat rising racial inequities and build an economy that works for everyone, the law must empower all Americans, regardless of their circumstances, so families have the resources they need to put food on the table, a roof over their head, and save for the future.”

“The New Deal offered working people guarantees of a minimum wage, unemployment compensation, and Social Security, as well as the right to organize unions and bargain collectively but it included carve-outs to exclude domestic and agricultural workers, who were predominantly Black and female,” said McCormick.

“The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which set the first maximum-hour limits and established the minimum wage, and the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which guaranteed collective bargaining rights, did not extend to most low-wage care workers either,” said McCormick.

“A few decades later, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act had little relevance for most domestic workers because its antidiscrimination and anti–sexual harassment clauses didn’t apply to workplaces that employed fewer than fifteen people,” said McCormick. “The 1970 Occupational Health and Safety Act was similarly irrelevant since it didn’t apply to homeowners who employ workers for “domestic household tasks” in their homes.”

“When the FLSA was revised in the 1970s, the Department of Labor continued to exclude home-based caregivers from basic labor rights,” said McCormick. “The Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act, which mandated that businesses grant eighty hours of paid sick leave to workers through the end of 2020, also excluded home care aides.”

There were 9.8 million workers employed as health care technicians and practitioners, including physicians, surgeons, and registered nurses. About two-thirds were non-Hispanic White.

Another 5.3 million worked as nursing assistants, home health and personal care aides and in other health care support occupations. One-quarter of these support workers were Black.

Women accounted for three-quarters of full-time, year-round health care workers.

McCormick said there are 2.2 million people in the United States who—in normal times—work in private homes as domestic workers responsible for caring for children, supporting older individuals and people with disabilities, and helping households stay clean.

“America’s legacy of legal exclusion for millions of working people has had dramatic consequences in the lives of those on whom so many of us depend,” said McCormick. “The industry’s median hourly wage is just over $12 an hour, or $16,200 per year.”

Domestic workers are three times as likely as other workers to live in poverty, and almost none of them have paid sick leave or belong to a union, even as more people recognize that collective bargaining power is a central element in the effort to build a healthy democracy.

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