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Home-care aides get boost from Obama

By Noam N. Levey, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama circumvented Congress and moved Thursday to require that home-care aides be paid minimum wage and overtime, giving the fast-growing workforce long-sought assistance.

Home care workers, who now number close to 2 million people, have been exempted from federal labor law since 1974.

And although many states have rules guaranteeing home care workers minimum wage, overtime or both, 29 states do not offer these protections.

With the $70 billion home care industry growing sharply — reflecting the desire of seniors and the disabled to remain at home — consumer groups, civil rights advocates and labor unions have called on the federal government to intervene to protect the workers.

Standing with a group of home care workers near the White House on Thursday, Obama said the proposed rules were long overdue.

“I can tell you firsthand that these men and women, they work their tails off, and they don’t complain,” the president said. “They deserve to be treated fairly. They deserve to be paid fairly for a service that many older Americans couldn’t live without.”

Bill Dombi, a vice president at the National Association for Home Care and Hospice, said the rules would likely provide little benefit to workers as home health companies would limit hours to avoid having to pay overtime.

Even advocates for home-care workers acknowledge that relatively few workers currently make less than the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour.

But the proposed rules could be particularly important for workers who have multiple clients because, for the first time, they would require many aides to be paid for travel time between their patients’ homes, said Steven Edelstein, national policy director of PHI PolicyWorks, a national advocate for home-care workers.

Leading groups representing home-care workers, including the Service Employees International Union, celebrated the president’s announcement.

“Today marks an enormous step forward to correct an injustice against hardworking Americans that has also hampered our ability to address the growing long-term care crisis in our country,” said SEIU President Mary Kay Henry.

The union, a key Obama supporter, represents roughly a quarter of the nation’s home-care workforce.

The Labor Department is currently taking comments about the proposed rules.

©2011 Tribune Co.

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