The Legacy of Evelyn Coke: Fighting for fair labor standards

Guest post by U.S. Rep. Linda T. Sánchez

“I worked for 20 years taking care of people—making sure they had a warm bath or a hot mealso they could have a decent life at home. Isn’t that work important? By the wages, you wouldn’t think we do an important job, but home care workers help people stay at home, close to their families. In some cases, we are their family.”

-     Evelyn Coke, an American heroine who passed away a year ago, on July 9, 2009.

The fact that she died a champion for humanity is not surprising; those who knew Ms. Coke witnessed her strength and compassion for the men and women she cared for.  As a home care worker, Ms. Coke struggled for more than 20 years to make ends meet, often working 70 hours a week for a mere seven dollars an hour.  Despite her dedication, she was denied full compensation, including time-and-a-half for overtime.

Ms. Coke was among the more than two million workers, including many new Americans like her, who assist elders and people living with disabilities with activities of daily living such as getting in and out of bed, dressing and undressing, cooking and eating, toileting and bathing.  Without people like Ms. Coke, many of our family members and friends would be unable to enjoy the autonomy and quality of life that we all hold dear.

Sadly, this essential workforce is excluded from the basic protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Low pay and poor working conditions have hindered recruitment and retention which, in turn, negatively affect the quality of care that millions of Americans receive.  Ms. Coke saw that in order to protect her family and the people she cared for, she had to stand up for change.

Driven by her belief that home care workers deserve the basic labor protections enjoyed by most American workers, Ms. Coke sued her employer for back wages.  Unfortunately, in 2007, the Supreme Court denied her any compensation when it overturned the lower court’s ruling.  The Supreme Court held the Department of Labor’s interpretation of “companionship” was reasonable and affirmed the exclusion of home care workers from minimum wage and overtime protections.

The Supreme Court also ruled that the Secretary of Labor had broad policy-making authority over the scope of “companionship” and could change its interpretation at any time.  Given the anniversary that recently passed, it is long past time to make that change.

There are several reasons why we must extend wage and overtime protections to home care workers: to help rebuild our vanishing middle class; to protect home care workers from exploitation; and, most importantly, to ensure that elders and individuals living with disabilities receive the highest quality of care.

Home care is one of the fastest growing workforces in our country, and we cannot afford to ignore the injustice facing these workers any longer.  Last year, I lead an effort, together with 36 of my congressional colleagues, to send a letter to U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, urging her to make this issue a top priority for the Department.

In honor of the anniversary of Ms. Coke’s passing, I stand by my request.

Though Ms. Coke is no longer with us, we can still make things right for the millions of other workers like her.  I will continue to work to make fair labor standards a reality for all Americans, including home care workers.  It’s the only way that we truly honor the legacy of Evelyn Coke.

Congresswoman Linda T. Sánchez represents the 39th Congressional District of California.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 28th, 2010 at 12:04 pm and is filed under Labor Law Reform. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “The Legacy of Evelyn Coke: Fighting for fair labor standards”

  1. [...] writes about the need to eliminate this discrepancy once and for all in a guest post on the American Rights at Work blog: The fact that she died a champion for humanity is not surprising; those who knew Ms. Coke [...]

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by AmericanRightsAtWork, Doug Pennington. Doug Pennington said: RT @araw: Guest blog post! U.S. Rep. Linda T. Sánchez on the legacy of Evelyn Coke at araw's blog [...]

  3. Rick Hurt says:

    There has been a bill HR 868 in US Congress for almost 2 years in regards to enhancement of wages of Direct Care Professionals, and as of this posting only 63 reps have co-sponsored the bill. This bill similar to others presented in the past 3 terms has failed to even get a vote. I live in Texas and only 2 out 32 reps have cosponsored the bipartisan bill. I live in Harris County the 3rd largest US county and no one has co-sponsored. In the eyes of the reps I guess they Don’t Care about Direct Care. We are typically non-union so we don’t have a voice in congress, while the reps get their photo-ops. One of the top advisors to the President was interviewed about his special needs adult daughter recently on the news. I am sure the administration is aware of the work we do and the low pay we recieve. That can change if HR 868 was passed in congress before the year ends. So is it Direct Care or Don’t Care?

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