Pay home-care aides fairly

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A year ago last December, President Barack Obama announced a proposed rule to extend minimum wage and overtime protections to home care workers under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. This would help professionalize this work and stabilize a crucially important but underpaid and under-respected workforce.

But the process of enacting the rule has been frustratingly slow. Some advocates fear it may not get enacted at all, partly because some big national franchises say their home-care agencies can't afford to pay overtime.

As the owner of a home-care agency in the Pittsburgh area, I know it's not only possible to pay home-care workers time and a half for overtime: It's the right thing to do. Besides, here in Pennsylvania and in 14 other states, it's already the law.

Don't get me wrong; it's not always easy. Not many people around here can afford to pay privately for home care, so about 95 percent of our services are covered by Medicaid -- at just $16.95 an hour. We pay our aides between $9 and $11 an hour, so we lose money for every hour of overtime we pay -- once you factor in the cost of things such as workers compensation, bonding, unemployment tax and Social Security tax.

But sometimes you have to pay overtime. If a client needs our help to get out of bed or get dressed or eat and their aide calls in sick, what are you going to do? You have to find a good replacement, and fast, even if the worker you find winds up clocking more than 40 hours that week.

It helps that we rarely assign overtime, because we find it's better for clients who need a lot of care to have a team of people covering them rather than just two or three people working lots of extra hours. That way, there are several people who know the client and his or her needs, who can step in for one another if someone has to take care of a sick child or gets sick themselves, or if they just need some time off to avoid burning out.

We do pay time and a half for holidays. A lot of companies don't do that, but we look at it from the caregivers' point of view.

A lot of our aides receive public benefits because they make so little money. Maybe they get food stamps, or someone in their house gets health care through Medicaid. What's more, most of them are single parents, so they're sacrificing time with their own families over the holidays to make sure our clients are taken care of.

This is not an easy way to make a living, but it's a very rewarding one. It's about taking care of people's needs -- the clients and the caregivers, too. We just have to be creative, both in finding revenue and in cutting down on overhead.

Taking on more hours allows us to bring in more income without increasing our overhead much. I work out of my home so I don't have the expense of running an office, and I do a lot of the office work myself.

Knowing that we're taking good care of our clients and treating our caregivers with the respect they deserve makes us feel good. And doing right by our caregivers includes paying them extra when they work extra hours.

opinion_commentary

Janis Durick owns From the Heart Companion Services, a home-care agency based in Trafford.


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