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No overtime pay for professional caregivers

 

A professional caregiverCaregivers. Home care. Homemakers. Personal care attendants. In short. The people who come to your home to provide the care that lets you stay in your home. Frequently these caregivers bounce from place to place, two hours here, four there, one a day, or five days a week. Maybe overnights if that what your care plans calls for. They are not usually compensated for time spent driving from client to client (mileage sometimes, hourly rate — no way!). It is a long, hard forty hour week for most such caregivers, and many times that work week stretches into forty-plus hours a week.

Today these caregivers were told by the Supreme Court that they can still work overtime, but they are not eligible for overtime pay. They don’t count. Their work — caring for millions of stay-at-home elders and disabled people — isn’t worthy of the extra pay. The balance of the court once again tipped away from family values and the rights of the common folk.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the decision, a boon to the companies, the employers and insurance companies and HMOs whose payrolls will not sag under the burden of fair wages for hours worked, and a growing burden to the hundreds of thousands of caregivers on the front lines of in home health care. It’s a profession with a 40-60% turnover rate. Long hours. Hard work. Burnout. Nobody’s getting rich here. Well, no one on the front lines.

The ruling was made in the case of Evelyn Coke, a 73-year-old former caregiver now in need of such care herself. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration was working toward the goal of providing overtime pay to these unsung workers, but the onslaught of the Bush regime quickly set about opposing the plan to pay overtime to home health care providers.

Think about this:

While I was both a full time midlife student, first a journalist and later a non-profit employee, I was also a home care provider. Once. Twice. Three times. Sometimes overlapping. I was one of the millions of Americans who are FREE labor in the health care field. I took care of my dad, a multiple-stroke victim, a lung cancer victim, and amputee. My mother, with my perennial and perpetual support, cared for my dad at home for 15 years. We both cared for her brother/my uncle, a former WWII POW with a brain injury, post-war mental health issues, eventual Alzheimer’s and other major health problems. We cared for him at home for 18 years, before it became necessary to institutionalize him. Even then, I continued on as his free legal advocate, medical advisor, paper pusher, fiscal conservator and legal guardian for another nine years. Unpaid. My mother suffered from Alzehiemer Disease, four years in the “invisible” Stage I, another five in the advancing stages. With the exception of 15 months when she lived in assisted living, I was the on call, round the clock caregiver.

There are millions like me who do this work out of love, a sense of responsibility, and a feeling that if can, we take care of our own. What would mom and I have earned else? What would mom and I have earned had we been paid for this undervalued work of caregiving? And what if we had stepped away from this work, as we could have chosen to do, and left it to the state? Or the feds under Social Security? Let the state and insurance pay for nursing homes and assisted living and legal services for three people for the better part of 30 years…

Now think about this:

  • The population is aging, people are living longer, Alzheimer Disease and other illnesses that prey on aging populations are spiraling toward epidemic levels even as the generation that follows is shrinking and dissipating to the far corners of the country, the continent, the planet earth. People don’t stay where they grew up anymore. They move out and on. There’s no one left to give care.
  • Caregivers are good, loving, hard-working people who are burning out in outrageous numbers  and not making anywhere near enough money to constitute a true living wage. They aren’t making enough to save for retirement or personal medical savings accounts touted by the current administration.
  • If professional caregivers are burning out at the rate of 40-60% a year, who will take their place? The money is not enough of an incentive to lure many young people into this kind of work.
  • And what happens when those of us who are “free” caregivers can’t do it anymore? We are, after all, aging ourselves. We are the baby-boomer bubble moving to whatever will be left of Social Security.

The fact is, free caregivers in the form of family and dear friends are so burdened with trying to stay afloat fiscally while burning out physically that they are becoming ill and emotionally burdened at younger ages than the people they care for. They may well need care of their own at younger ages.

Caregiving is not just an act of love: it is a profession no less worthy of solid wages and OVERTIME, incentives and bonuses than Licensed Practical Nurses and Registered Nurses.

Opting to deny overtime to professional caregivers is a slap in the face not just to them but to the people they serve.

Our Supreme Court judges, our government, our President with his so-called agenda of family values, needs to think about building warehouses for the aging baby boomers speeding toward seniority, a kind of orphanage for old folks without caregivers, unless he plans to let them die in their homes, unattended, because no one can afford to care for them without a realistic paycheck. A few billion shifted from the Iraq War budget would go a long way to funding programs for elder assistance via caregiving, but taking money from the war machine for public health might be considered anti-American. Anti-Bush. But then, Bush doesn’t have to worry about things like this; his family fortune and his presidential perks will care for him for life. I bet that somewhere in his future, his caregivers, at least, will be making exceptional wages based not just on medical skills but security clearance. And our tax dollars will pay for that.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will just have to take our chances. Or stay healthy ’til we drop.

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Note: I earned my individualized Master of Arts in this field, with a book-length thesis entitled Daughter of Dementia, which addressed caring for elders with Alzheimer Disease and coping with caregiver burnout.

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