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Supreme Court to Home Health Workers: Screw You

In yet another example of how the U.S. Supreme Court devalues women, we have the settlement of Long Island Care at Home v. Coke, and it is grim. Essentially, the ruling states that home health care workers—a group that logs in at over 90% female—should be included in what are legally known as “companion services.” This is a big deal, as the 1974 Fair Labor Standards Act exempts “companion services” from the minimum wage. Just to clarify, before the Court assigned home health workers this legal position, the category of “companion services” was mostly populated by babysitters, dog walkers, and that neighborhood kid you pay a dollar to come feed your cat. (For more on this, check out a great NOW article on the subject.)

Leaving entirely aside for the moment the fact that even if these women were accorded the minimum wage, they might not be clocking in a living wage, let’s turn briefly to the incredibly patronizing tone this decision inscribes into law. This is an immense devaluation of some of the hardest work being done in this country—notably, work that has been historically handled by women.

This isn’t merely a case of straight-up and down misogyny (or racism, for that matter, with women of color radically outnumbering all others in the field of home health care), especially since the workers won their first round, pre-Supreme Court, in the NY State Court of Appeals. Jacki Lyden and Nancy Solomon of NPR report on the case made by lawyers during the trial that paying home health aides and others in the field a minimum wage would bankrupt an already imploding health care system. I won’t be the one to say that isn’t true—but it sure isn’t a solid reason not to pay these workers the wages they’re most certainly due. (And, as the child of a health-care-oriented social worker, I’m assured that many of the problems bound up in our entirely backward system are going to remain problems until the people who work on the ground with patients—meaning nurses, aides and home health providers—are paid enough to feed their own families.)

Lilith has been dealing with the related social justice issue of domestic workers for a while, so I know there’s a tzedek issue at the base here, but in the spirit of bi-partisanship, let’s explore the me-factor, the thing that ought to drive this home for us all: we have grandparents. We have parents. We have ourselves in ten, twenty, fifty years. We may need someone to help us or our loved ones into and out of bed, in or out of the tub, help eating, help with medication. And if we value ourselves and our loved ones, we should value those upon whom they and we will rely.

The Supreme Court’s ruling was embarrassing and demeaning, and it will only serve to hold together for whatever meager amount of time remains a faulty and punishing national system of health care. Rock on, team.

For those of you who are into that sort of thing, you can read the full decision here, and check out the official statement by the 1199SEIU HealthCare Workers Union.

–Mel Weiss