The Biden administration on Tuesday said it will beef up enforcement to ensure essential workers are being paid correctly, and educate individuals on their rights.
Under the new initiative, the Labor Department plans to educate essential caregivers on their right to minimum wage and overtime pay and how to file a complaint if they believe their rights have been violated. The administration will also make sure employers aren't misclassifying workers as independent contractors.
The Labor Department will develop partnerships with state and local stakeholders to make sure workers understand their rights and employers understand their responsibilities, according to a news release.
Employer compliance will be a crucial element of the initiative, the release said. The department clawed back more than $38.7 million in back wages owed to healthcare workers in fiscal 2021, and surveyors have increasingly found employers misidentifying workers as independent contractors.
"Professional caregivers have always been and continue to be some of our nation's most essential workers. We look to them to care for us and our families and they deserve our appreciation, respect and protection," acting wage and hour administrator Jessica Looman said in a news release.
Caregiving advocates say it's good to see the department center workers in conversations about workers' rights.
"I think what's really positive about this, what we're hoping to see as the details of these efforts move forward, is that the workers do become empowered to become their own best advocates when it comes to advancing not only individual pay, but also better systems of support for the workforce," said Nicole Jorwic, chief of advocacy and campaigns for Caring Across Generations.
The Labor Department said it timed its announcement with the close of National Home Care and Hospice Month. The initiative applies to home health aides, as the home care industry has a history of violating practices, a spokesperson said. But it also applies to nursing assistants, emergency medical technicians, childcare workers and others.
Most home care providers understand home care workers' rights, but some need refreshers, according to Bill Dombi, president and CEO of the National Association for Home Care & Hospice. Providers have focused on improvements including properly identifying compensable work hours and figuring out when it's okay to classify a worker as an independent contractor in recent years, he said.
Improving in these areas "will help home care companies avoid costly audits and potential litigation as well as the double damages that come with [Fair Labor Standards Act] violations," Dombi said.
The Labor Department implemented a rule in 2015 to extend overtime and federal minimum wage protections to the industry. The home care industry challenged the rule, but the Supreme Court let it stand. The Government Accountability Office in 2020 found the rule led some states to limit workers' hours to keep them from working overtime. Home care workers didn't make significantly more money after the rule, GAO said.
Dombi said employers can't afford overtime costs, often due to low Medicaid rates.
"The consequences are heightened today as [the] shortage of workers grows. However, the solution does not lie in employer noncompliance. Instead, payers need to step up and cover overtime costs at least until the workforce increases," he said.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment of home care aides and personal care aides—a field predominately made up of women of color—will grow 33% between 2020 and 2030, far faster than the average occupation growth rate.
With the COVID-19 pandemic creating even more of a demand for home care, the Biden administration has prioritized improving worker conditions. President Joe Biden originally proposed Congress invest $400 billion in Medicaid home- and community-based services, in part to help raise wages for home care workers. The reconciliation bill passed by the House and currently being considered by the Senate cuts the investment down to $150 billion.