What Obama could do for home health care workers

OPINION - President Obama has the opportunity and the authority to realize the full potential of the New Deal...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Seventy-five years ago today, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law revolutionary worker protections. The Fair Labor Standards Act established the federal minimum wage, overtime pay and the 40-hour workweek and banned child labor. If you enjoy things like the weekend, being paid more than pennies an hour, or not having to spend your childhood in a factory, you have this landmark piece of New Deal legislation to thank.

On the eve of signing the law, FDR said that “except perhaps for the Social Security Act, it is the most far-reaching, the most far-sighted program for the benefit of workers that has ever been adopted here or in any other country.”

But seventy-five years later the promise of this New Deal legislation is still not complete. A large and growing group of workers is still not protected by these labor laws.

In the mid-1930s, Southern Democrats dominated Congress, controlling more than half of the committee chairmanships and a majority of leadership positions. In order to win their support for New Deal programs, FDR repeatedly denied protections to agricultural and domestic workers, who made up two thirds of the African-American workforce. And when it came to pass minimum wage and overtime laws, the exclusion of African-American occupations continued. Congressman Martin Dies, a Texas Democrat, argued [pdf] on the House floor, quote “you cannot prescribe the same wages for the black man as for the white man.”

Minimum wage was extended for many farmworkers in the 1960s, but domestic workers like maids, cooks, and nannies were still left out by the mid 1970s. Without protections from minimum wage and suffering high unemployment, domestic workers who went to work in private homes were at the will of their employers. Journalist and civil rights activist Marvel Cooke wrote [pdf] about her experiences in the 1930’s and 1950’s in what was known as the Bronx Slave Market, “where Negro women wait, in rain or shine, in bitter cold or under broiling sun, to be hired by local housewives looking for bargains in human labor… They are still forced to do an unspecified amount of work under unspecified conditions, with no guarantee that, at the end of the day, they will receive even the pittance agreed upon.”

In neighboring Brooklyn, the daughter of a domestic worker took notice. Her name was Shirley Chisholm, and in 1968 she became the first African-American woman elected to Congress. In the seventies, Chisholm led a group of Congresswomen determined to extend minimum wage to domestic workers. Speaking on the floor of the House about 1973 minimum wage legislation that included a provision to extend coverage to domestic workers, Chisholm said [pdf], “My own mother was a domestic, so I speak from personal experience when I tell you of the heavy burden household workers carry and the unfair wage they have received.” The legislation to raise the minimum wage to $2.30 and extend coverage to domestic workers was passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress, but vetoed by President Nixon. Democrats still needed more votes. Once again, they needed more Southern Democrats.

What happened next is one of the most amazing cases of strange political bedfellows of the 20th century. Shirley Chisholm, called upon then-segregationist, Alabama Governor George Wallace, to build support for extending wage protections to a group of workers who were disproportionately women of color. Chisholm had visited Wallace in the hospital when he was shot in 1972 while campaigning for president. She was also making a bid for president at the time and the move angered many of her supporters, but Chisholm forged a bond with Wallace that would pay off.

In the hunt for votes from Southern Democrats for a veto-proof majority for minimum wage legislation, Chisholm reached out to Wallace. He made calls to fellow southern congressmen on her behalf, and the legislation passed the house in 1974 with a whopping 350 votes in the House – enough to pressure president Nixon to sign the bill into law.

This should have been the happy ending. But one group of domestic workers was soon to be left out in the cold – homecare workers who bathed, fed, cleaned and cared for the elderly and disabled. When Nixon’s Labor Department implemented the new law, they lumped these workers in the same category as teenage baby sitters, denying them minimum wage and overtime protections. In fact, the Labor Department even used its authority to roll back wage and hour protections for home care workers who, because they worked for third party agencies, had previously been covered under the law. The Nixon administration used its executive authority to write these workers out of the law.

At the time there were a couple hundred thousand home care workers, but as Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein document in “Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State,” the workforce exploded with the aging of America and a shift to more and more health care being provided in the home. Home health care is now an $84 billion dollar industry. There are now more than 2.5 million home care workers, and it is the second fastest growing occupation in America. Of those 1.5 million that work for staffing agencies, more than 90 percent of these workers are women, nearly half are African-American or Hispanic.

President Clinton tried to extend minimum wage and overtime protections to this ballooning workforce, proposing a rule on the second to last day of his presidency. But he waited too long to act, and President Bush scrapped it during the review process.

It was around this time that a 64-year old home care worker named Evelyn Coke was hit by a car near her home in New York. When her lawyer looked through her pay stubs he saw she was working as much as 70 hours a week — sometimes three 24 hour shifts in a row– with no overtime pay. He urged her to sue for coverage under federal minimum wage and overtime laws. Ms. Coke’s case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, but in 2007 they ruled that only Congress or the Department of Labor could change the rules.

Coke told the Associated Press, quote, “ I feel robbed… people are supposed to get paid when they work.”

Two months later, Senator Barack Obama spent a day on the presidential campaign trail shadowing home health care worker Pauline Beck as part of an event organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). And on December 15, 2011, Beck was at President Obama’s side when he called on his Labor Department to propose a rule to extend wage and hour protections to home care workers. “Today, we’re guaranteeing homecare workers minimum wage and overtime pay protection,” said President Obama.

But a year and a half later, homecare workers are still waiting for Obama to fulfill his promise. The Labor Department finished its work months ago but the rule is stalled at the Office of Management and Budget, a political agency inside the White House. The ball is in Obama’s court.

Seventy-five years ago today, white southerners had a stranglehold over the Democratic Party, preventing critical new worker protections from extending to black Americans. Now, Barack Obama is in the White House thanks to a coalition including African Americans, Latinos and women—the very people groups so affected by the hole in the Fair Labor Standards Act. President Obama has the opportunity and the authority to realize the full potential of the New Deal and deliver essential worker protections to a growing group of workers that have been relegated to second-class status for decades. The question is: Will he act?

For more on this story, here’s a clip from “Up with Steve Kornacki.”