From New York to California, domestic workers are fighting to make new rights a reality.
Almost two years after the Obama administration extended historic labor protections to the nation’s 1.79 million home healthcare workers, those new rights remain in limbo. In September 2013, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced plans to amend a longstanding regulation that has excluded them from earning the federal minimum wage, overtime pay, and compensation for travel on the job. For home healthcare workers in the United States—a group that is nearly 90 percent female—this move marked a significant step towards setting a floor of decent labor standards.
But the rule-change, which was set to go into effect on January 1st, now faces a challenge in federal court, and critics say state legislators are using the ongoing litigation as an excuse to avoid implementing the new protections. At the same time, given that most home healthcare workers are paid through Medicaid and Medicare—two underfunded public programs—many also worry that states will respond to the rule-change by curtailing consumers’ access to quality care. Activists across the country are working to pressure their lawmakers to reckon with these new standards and avoid potential calamity.
Families cannot make ends meet at minimum wage jobs. Over the last forty years, the real value of the federal minimum wage has fallen by nearly 30%. If it had kept pace with inflation, it would be $10.58, instead of $7.25. The tipped minimum wage has been frozen at $2.13 an hour for 21 years; servers have 3 times the poverty rate of the rest of the US workforce. The public overwhelmingly supports raising the minimum wage; many believe it would help the economy by putting money in the hands of families who will spend it. Organizing efforts have helped pass minimum wage increases in dozens of states and scores of cities, providing a raise not only to minimum wage workers, but boosting wages across the low-wage job market. Higher city and state minimum wage levels also help create momentum for increasing the federal minimum; a proposed federal increase to $9.80 would raise the wages of 28 million workers in the US, boost GDP by over $25 billion and support the creation of over 100,000 jobs*
*Estimates by the Economic Policy Institute quoted in NELP’s Issue Brief New Minimum Wage Bills Would Accelerate Recovery and Improve Job Quality, August 2012.
In the wake of the great recession, a sense of righteous anger has spread through the public. The long-standing fact that millions of American workers struggle in jobs with wages so low they can’t provide for their families is taking center stage in our national political discourse. A growing awareness of the extent of economic inequality has galvanized a set of progressive political and social actions that seek to build a more just economy. In 2013 and 2014 alone, at least 12 cities and 17 states raised the minimum wage. Fast-food restaurant workers, who for several years have been organizing for union rights and raises to $15 an hour, went on strike in nearly 200 cities in 2014. Domestic and construction workers, long marginalized in the labor force, are joining together to win rights and recognition.
Asserting that black lives matter also means that the quality of those lives matters. This report takes its title from the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which was founded following George Zimmerman’s acquittal of murder in the death of black teenager Trayvon Martin.
In the time since, #BlackLivesMatter has served both as an umbrella and a focus point for protest and activism in response to the violent deaths of black people across America at the hands of law enforcement officials. The movement hit a peak in the latter half of 2014 as grand juries failed to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City. The explosion of political protest that arose in Ferguson and other cities has inspired a new wave of activism that goes well beyond the individual cases of these black people who lost their lives.
Over the last decade, grassroots opposition to Wage Theft has grown dramatically across the country. Wage theft, the illegal underpayment of wages primarily affects the working poor. It is widespread and occurs in various forms and industries. It is estimated that millions of low wage workers annually are not paid at legally required overtime rates, at minimum wages or for total hours worked. In response workers’ rights organizations have engaged in increasingly sophisticated and successful campaigns to strengthen enforcement and make sure that monies due employees are repaid.