Posted on June 11, 2007 Issues: Poverty & Economic Security Workplace

For Immediate Release: Monday, June 11, 2007
Contact: Jenice Robinson or Ranit Schmelzer, 202-588-5180

Ruling a Setback for Low-Wage Women

(Washington, D.C.) Just two weeks after weakening workers’ rights to file pay discrimination claims, the Supreme Court rejected another bid for fair treatment in the workplace by holding that businesses are not required to pay the federal minimum wage or overtime to employees who provide home care services for the elderly.

In Long Island Care at Home v. Coke, the Court upheld a Department of Labor regulation that excludes all workers who provide in-home care for elderly or disabled people from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) wage and overtime protections. The challenged exclusion applies to employees of home care companies and agencies of any size. This regulation, approved by the Court, means that profit-making companies can legally choose to pay home care workers deplorably low wages or deny them just compensation for overtime.

“The Court’s ruling is another blow to struggling, low-wage women,” said Nancy Duff Campbell, Co-President of the National Women’s Law Center. “It means that home care workers, who are overwhelmingly low-income women of color, will continue to be unfairly treated despite providing essential services to our growing elderly and disabled population. Employers in the home care industry should, like other businesses, be required to comply with modest, but vital, labor protections.”

The case began when Evelyn Coke sued her employer, Long Island Care at Home, alleging that it violated the FLSA by paying her less than minimum wage and failing to pay extra compensation for overtime work. The district court sided with the employer, which argued that a Department of Labor rule exempts third-party employers of home care workers from the FSLA.

Ms. Coke appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals challenging the validity of the Department of Labor regulation. The circuit court sided with Ms. Coke and ruled that the regulation was invalid because it was inconsistent with Congress’s purpose when it expanded the FLSA to cover domestic service workers in 1974 and inconsistent with other Department of Labor regulations. The Supreme Court today struck down that decision.

“The ruling is especially troubling given the changes Congress made to the FLSA decades ago to right historic wrongs,” Campbell said.

In the 1930s, the original FLSA excluded domestic workers, a workforce that was overwhelmingly female and African American. Recognizing the inherent gender and racial bias in that exclusion, lawmakers made important changes to the FLSA in the 1960s, extending its protections to domestic workers who worked for employers of a certain size. In 1974, Congress extended FLSA protections to domestic workers employed by individual households, except for casual babysitters and individuals providing companionship services to elderly and infirm individuals. But in 1975, the final regulation issued by the Department of Labor declared that third-party employers of workers providing companionship services did not have to comply with FLSA requirements.

Home care workers perform stressful, physically demanding jobs. Yet, these workers are among the lowest paid in the service industry. Research shows that median earnings for home health care workers employed on a full-time, full-year basis is below the federal poverty threshold for a family of four. Further, these workers usually lack retirement plans and other employment benefits. As the country’s population continues to age, the need for home health services will continue to grow.

“Home health workers provide essential services and, at the very least, the law should afford them basic wage protections,” Campbell said. “If the Department of Labor and the Court won’t remedy this long-standing injustice, Congress should.”