Black History Month gives us a moment to reflect on the progress our country has made in the name of racial justice – and the distance we still have to go.
The country’s renewed interest in income inequality presents an opportunity to highlight that it is in fact people of color who disproportionately bear this burden. And one industry where this injustice is particularly clear is the caregiving industry. Caregivers are chronically undervalued, overworked and predominantly women of color.
As the baby boomers age and we approach the largest demographic shift in the history of the United States, we are on the verge of a massive need for long-term care providers. As a country, we need to ensure that these jobs are ones of quality and respect. This presents a significant opportunity for our country to take on the racial injustices that continue to permeate our society.
There is no better symbol of the struggle that caregivers face and how this struggle is representative of the racial injustice that still pervades the country than Ms. Evelyn Coke, an immigrant from Jamaica who passed away in July of 2009 after dedicating her life to taking care of people. For more than 20 years, she cooked meals, monitored medication, treated wounds and provided all the necessary supports for dozens of elderly clients, enabling them to remain in their homes and live with dignity, often under very difficult circumstances.
Despite having an unbelievably taxing job—she usually left her house before dawn, worked multiple 24-hour shifts in a row, and earned approximately $7 per hour, 70 hours a week with no overtime pay—Ms. Coke loved her work and understood its importance.
Well past retirement age, a severe disability eventually made it impossible for her to work. She consulted a lawyer for issues related to the disability, but the meeting took a different turn after he looked at her paltry pay stubs. He encouraged her to file a lawsuit contending she should be paid overtime for the overtime hours she worked as a home caregiver, despite an exemption in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) for “companions.” Believing her work was equal in value to other work and thus deserved fair treatment under the law, she pursued this lawsuit. As a result of her persistence, the case reached the Supreme Court in 2007; however, the court unanimously rejected her claims, a decision that denied millions of other caregivers the pay they deserved.
Years later, still unable to work, Ms. Coke suffered from kidney failure and bedsores, but was too poor to pay a health care worker to help her in her time of need and eventually succumbed to heart failure. Ironically, she could not afford to live with dignity in her old age the way her work allowed so many others to do.
Though Ms. Coke did not live to see justice served, some progress has been made. In September, The U.S. Department of Labor issued regulations that extended minimum wage and overtime protections to the nearly 2 million home care workers like Ms. Coke in this country. As a result, the home care workforce will receive equal protection to other workers under the FLSA after 75 years of exclusion.
While many had their hands in this change, not the least of whom is U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, I’m particularly thankful for Ms. Evelyn Coke—for her years of service to society, for supporting older people who needed her care, for risking it all for justice and for asserting the dignity of her work. She created the path to change for the millions of care workers who will follow in her footsteps, and who now have a floor upon which to build a pathway to real opportunity.
But our work is not done. While the extension of the FLSA is a great first step, we must ensure that the caregiving workforce is lifted up out of the shadows and afforded real opportunity to live and work with dignity and respect. Care workers do the work that makes all other work possible: They need full worker benefits. They need paid sick days. The deserve justice.
Evelyn Coke’s story exemplifies the hardship that many long-term care providers face and illustrates how this struggle disproportionately affects people of color. Most importantly, it sheds new light on the opportunity we have as a country to triumph over injustice. These jobs—one of the highest demand professions in this country—are predominantly done by women of color, yet are perpetually underpaid and under-appreciated. This isn’t just an issue of ensuring a living wage, but a broader matter of social justice and the way we treat our friends, neighbors and community members and value the work they do. This Black History month, I’m reminded of Ms. Coke and honored to carry out her legacy in the fight for racial and economic justice.