The Obama Labor Department announced yesterday a new regulation that mandates that home health care workers be subject to the federal minimum wage and federal time-and-a-half overtime requirements. Reporting the story for the Reuters news wire, correspondent Amanda Becker hailed the move, noting that newly sworn-in Labor Secretary Thomas Perez was "setting an assertive tone" with the regulation. "Today we are taking an important step toward guaranteeing that these professionals receive the wage protections they deserve while protecting the right of individuals to live at home," Becker quoted Perez as exulting.
Nowhere in her 18-paragraph story -- which I found published on page A20 of the September 18 Washington Post -- did Becker turn to critics of the new regulation, which is not slated to go into effect until January 1, 2015, after the crucial 2014 midterm elections. By contrast, Wall Street Journal reporters Melanie Trottman and Kris Maher gave their readers both sides of the story in their September 18 front-pager, "Regulators Boost Wages, Overtime for Health Aides." Indeed, Trottman and Maher wasted no time noting there are two sides to the policy argument, mentioning objections by "some business officials" in their lead paragraph (emphases mine):
WASHINGTON—The Labor Department extended minimum-wage and overtime pay to nearly two million workers in the home health-care industry, in a long-fought victory for unions, but a move some business officials said could make home care unaffordable for many consumers.
The workers—often known as personal-care aides, home-health aides or certified nursing assistants—typically bathe, dress and feed elderly or disabled patients. A large percentage of the workers are hired directly by people with disabilities or their families. Others are employed by private companies that provide services. Workers typically are paid with Medicaid funds administered by states.
"Today's home-care workers are lumped into the same category as teenage baby sitters when it comes to how much they make. This is wrong, and this is unfair," Labor Secretary Tom Perez said Tuesday. He said the workers have been excluded for nearly 40 years under an exemption in the Fair Labor Standards Act, despite many working long hours and being "skilled, capable and very well-trained."
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established minimum-wage, overtime-pay and record-keeping standards for employees in the private sector and federal, state and local governments. In 1974, Congress extended the law to cover workers who perform "domestic service." But the law exempted certain domestic-service workers from its minimum-wage and overtime provisions, such as casual baby sitters and domestic service workers who provide "companionship services" for the elderly or persons with an illness or disability.
The new rule revises the definition of "companionship services" to extend minimum-wage and overtime protections to nearly two million more workers.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Tuesday reiterated long-standing concerns that the rule could make home-health care unaffordable for many.
"Businesses will have trouble because customers won't be able to afford" the care, said Marc Freedman, the trade group's executive director of labor law policy, who counts some home-health care companies as members. Mr. Freedman said he is particularly concerned about small businesses.
"In the end, the people who'll be likely to suffer will be workers who can't get work they had before," Mr. Freedman said, adding that the rule raises broader concerns that Mr. Perez "is determined to move forward on regulations that the business community has been concerned about for some time."
For his part, Mr. Perez said the agency carefully listened to concerns and chose an effective date of 2015 to allow more time for those affected to adapt. He also said states that already have similar wage rules "have managed to have a vibrant, thriving industry."
The National Association for Home Care & Hospice, and its affiliate the Private Duty Homecare Association, also voiced concerns. "While ostensibly intended to help hardworking caregivers, it will have the very opposite effect," said Andrea L. Devoti, chairman of the trade group.
"Home-care companies will have little choice but to employ workers part-time rather than full-time as Medicaid payment rates and consumers with limited incomes cannot afford higher costs. Caregivers will in the end receive less pay," she said.
She also said the law needs to be re-evaluated since it was written when most health care was received in hospitals, nursing homes and other institutional settings. Today, more and more care is delivered in the home. "These laws need to be re-evaluated by Congress in total rather than in piecemeal fashion," Ms. Devoti said. "The central focus of this review should always be what is best for the people needing care."
Trottman and Maher did go on to note the enthusiastic reception by labor union officials as well as that of an "ecstatic" Ben Bledsoe, the president and CEO of Consumer Direct Management Solutions, so it's not as though they set out to paint a completely negative picture of the regulation. Instead, they did what reporters for ostensibly objective news outlets are supposed to do: report all sides of the story.