Workers’ Unlikely Ally in Fight for $15 Minimum Wage: Senior Citizens

November 10, 2015, 4:03 PM UTC

Ever since fast food restaurant employees walked off their jobs in opposition to poor pay in 2012, the so-called Fight For $15 movement, which pushes for a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to join a union, has represented a very specific demographic: working men and women who occupy low-wage jobs.

Now, senior citizens, some of whom are retired, have come on board.

The Fight for $15, which is backed by the Service Employees International Union, has focused on organizing senior citizen supporters in Florida, where residents aged 65 and older make up 20% of the population—a large voting bloc in the swing state. The goal is for older voters in Florida to rally behind raising the wages of home care workers—one of the Fight for $15’s key constituencies.

Home care workers first joined the Fight for $15 in September 2014. They represent one of the fastest-growing but lowest paid professions in the U.S. Personal care aides—workers who help clients with self-care and everyday tasks—earn an average of $9.57 per hour nationally, and home health aides—assistants to the disabled, chronically ill, or cognitively impaired who can administer medication or check vial signs—take home an average of $10.01 per hour. As America’s population ages, demand for these professions is expected to surge by 49% and 48%, respectively, from 2012 to 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, eclipsing the 11% average growth anticipated for all occupations.

Because the population of seniors in need of home care is growing faster than the supply of aides, a “care gap” is emerging. In a recent report, the Fight For $15 estimates that, nationally, there’s one home care worker for every nine home care consumers, but that ratio varies based on geography. Florida, with its large population of residents over age 65, has the largest gap—one worker for every 35 seniors who need care.

Kendall Fells, national organizing director for the Fight For $15, told Fortune that better pay would attract more workers to the field. By joining the protests in cities like Miami, Tampa, and Fort Myers on Tuesday, seniors will be advocating for higher wages for the aides that they already rely on or might need to hire in the future.

Home care workers have been at or near the bottom rung of the labor ladder since 1938, when they were left out of the Fair Labor Standards Act that guarantees minimum wage and overtime pay. Their exemption was an attempt to appease members of Congress from the south who’d refused to sign onto the bill if domestic and farm workers—industries made up largely of African Americans at the time—were included, Peggie Smith, a labor and employment law professor at Washington University School of Law told Fortune last year. Home care workers were systematically removed from state minimum wage protections in the following years primarily because the occupation, Smith says, was dismissed as a training ground for women who would soon be married.

Workers finally got a boost last month when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a plea from home care industry groups to delay a new rule that removes the FLSA’s long-held exemption for home care workers. The rule was first introduced by the Department of Labor in 2013 at the urging of President Barack Obama, but its implementation was pushed back by court challenges. Now that it’s in effect, home care workers who are employed by third-party agencies are guaranteed the federal minimum wage and overtime pay.

But for the Fight for $15, that’s not enough.

Fells says Tuesday’s protests, which are expected to take place in 270 cities nationwide, are intended to urge elected officials to recognize the 64 million Americans who earn less than $15 as an influential caucus. Organizers have timed the protests to occur about one year from Election Day 2016 and on the same day as the fourth Republican Presidential primary debate. (Protests are expected to be held outside the debate venue in Milwaukee.)

Fells wants demonstrations by seniors and home care workers themselves to prompt action by lawmakers. He pointed to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent decision to institute a wage board in New York State—which subsequently raised the minimum wage for fast food workers to $15—as an example of an elected official acknowledging low-wage workers’ political power.

But when it comes to raising wages for home care workers, there’s one counter argument that carries more weight than it does for other occupations like fast food: hiking pay for home care workers will make their services unaffordable for consumers who desperately need them. Seventy-three percent of the $61 billion home health care services industry is paid for with public funds, primarily through Medicaid. It’s a common concern that a worker pay increase would leave states without the funds to provide in-home care for all of the elderly and disabled individuals who rely on it.

Fells argues that it’s not up to the workers to figure out where their pay will come from—it’s their responsibility to simply demand a living wage. He says elected officials have a duty to ensure that “people working full-time jobs can afford food and a roof over their heads.”

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