In 2011 the Obama administration proposed that the Department of Labor abolish the companionship exemption, which excludes home care workers from minimum wage and overtime protections because they’ve been deemed to be companions for people with disabilities instead of caregivers.
The federal change, under review by the Office of Management, would provide wage protections to over 2 million in-home care workers by clarifying the difference between a companion and a personal attendant. According to the DOL, companions would perform duties consistent with companion roles, but personal care tasks would not be able to exceed 20 percent of total weekly hours worked. Companions could no longer perform medical tasks that typically require training but still would not need to be paid overtime wages.
The push for expanded wage protections began years ago when Long Island caregiver Evelyn Coke sued her employer for back overtime pay. In June 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that because of the companionship exemption under the Fair Labor Standards Act, Coke’s employer had done nothing wrong. However, the high court said the DOL could reinterpret the exemption.
Labor advocates herald the proposal as a way to improve working conditions for home care workers and attract people into the fast growing profession. However, many in the disability community fear the estimated $100 million yearly cost of the rule change will impact their care by cutting caregiver pay. They want to see Medicaid rates raised to cover the additional expense.
California resident and quadriplegic Nancy Becker Kennedy receives 269 hours a month in attendant care. She tries to give her caregivers as many hours as she can but says she fears she’ll be forced to cap caregiver hours and hire more help.
Becker Kennedy, a member of the Los Angeles County Public Authority Board that oversees in-home care for 200,000 people, says many caregivers in California are family members who could be hard hit under the proposal. For example, a person who receives the maximum 280 monthly care hours at $10 an hour would pay their family caregiver $2800 per month. However, if the exemption were