More than 1,000 domestic workers employed by the Department of Human Resources have complained to Mayor Marion Barry that they are being denied wages and employe benefits to which they are entitled under federal and District labor laws.
While DHR and Corporation Counsel officials deny the claim, the five-month controversy recently netted a 90-cent-an-hour raise for the 1,006 household workers who have formed a lobby, the Organization of Personal Care and (Home) Chore Services (OPCS).
The raise brought the current wage for the employes to $2.90 a hour, from $2 an hour.
Personal care workers and chore aides are hired to assist chronically ill and aged Medicare and/or Medicaid patients who live at home. The duties performed by the personal care workers include feeding patients, bathing them and performing light household work. Chore aides perform household work only.
The programs are funded by the Social Security Administration and are administered by DHR through private contracts with the household workers.
However, the household workers have complained that the contracts are written by DHR and workers have no chance to negotiate the terms.
Noel Grant, program officer of the national household worker's lobby group, the National Committee of Household Employes (NCHE), said the household workers asked Barry for help on March 17 after the D.C. Corporation Counsel ruled on March 2 that the workers were not entitled to the $3.50-an-hour minimum $&(WORD ILLEGIBLE wage recently set for household workers by the D.C. Minimum Wage and Industrial Safety Board.
The mayor then ordered DHR and city officials to meet with members from the national committee and OPCS to form a task force that would review the possibility of implementing the $3.50 minimum wage. The mayor also said the task force would consider other recommendations by OPCS.
In addition to the $3.50 minimum wage, OPCS suggested that DHR:
- Hold annual salary reviews to upgrade workers' pay.
- Provide the workers with Social Security and unemployment benefits.
- Provide training programs.
Grant said the primary issue in the controversy is that neither DHR nor the Social Security Administration has a uniform employment policy on minimum wage or employee benefits for the domestic workers.
She said the lack of a policy has created inequities in the DHR household program during the 10 years of its existence.
For example, DHR pays Social Security benefits for home chore aids, but not for personal care workers, Grant said.
Before the across-the-board, 90-cent-an-hour pay increase was approved, DHR had received approval from the City Council Committee on Human Resources and Aging to increase the wages of the home chore aides only, Grant said.
The committee is chaired by Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3).
In addition, DHR policy denied all workers unemployment benefits, annual salary increases and limited them to a maximum monthly income of $200, even if an individual worked overtime (more than 20 hours a week).
James Butts, assistant director of the DHR's Social Rehabilitation Administration, said the workers arenot entitled to employe benefits or minimum wages set by federal or District laws because they are not city employes. He said the workers are private contract workers who have agreed to provide services for DHR patients under the conditions outlined in the contract.
Before the workers' March 17 meeting with Barry, Acting D.C. Corporation Counsel Judith Rogers ruled that the workers were not covered under D.C. labor laws in their contract with DHR.
In a memo dated March 2, Rogers worte that although the workers fall into the general category of "private household help," a section of the D.C. Minimum Wage Act "as amended, excludes the District from the definition of "employer." Therefore, the D.C. Minimum Wage Act does not apply to the District government as an employer. It follows, therefore, that the $3.50-per hour minimum wage for private household workers does not apply to DHR as employer of chore or home health aides."
Lois E. Bruckner, legal adviser to NCHE, said the organization is trying to find a way to organize the workers to allow them to keep their jobs with the D.C. government and also receive employe benefits.
Bruckner said NCHE is asking DHR to establish a uniform job definition and policy that will give the workers the employe benefits to which they are entitled.
So far "they have been getting the short end of the stick under both (federal and District labor) definitions," Bruckner said of the household workers employed by DHR.
She said similar situations have occurred elsewhere in the country because there is no federal policy that defines the labor status of the household workers in the Social Security programs. And federal legislation now pending on the issue fails to cover the full range of problems encountered by the household workers group, she said.
On Monday, members of NCHE testified before the House Ways and Means Committee about the problems of the District workers and the inadequacy of the pending legislation.
Bruckner said NCHE is trying to resolve the workers' problems without going into court.
"The mayor has been extremely helpful. I think the commitment is there on the part of the mayor and Mr. (Albert) Russo (director of DHR)," Bruckner said.
"There are very few precedents to follow and some of the people are a little leery to do something for which there is no clear precedent."