Stephanie Eppert and her daughter, Jessie, celebrated with a rare treat of ice cream last fall when news arrived that overtime and the minimum wage would be paid to in-home health-care workers. But the celebration was short-lived. Eppert — a single mother who takes care of her daughter, who has Down syndrome — learned days before the new law was to go into effect on January 1 that a federal court had struck down the addition to the Fair Labor Standards Act. California officials soon decided to halt overtime payments to the In-Home Supporting Services (IHSS) caretakers, despite having budgeted funds to do so. Without the income increase she was relying on, Eppert lost her family’s insurance and continues to struggle to make ends meet.
“We thought this year would be our best year, but now it’s only February, and we’re already drowning,” said Eppert. “Overtime pay was our life raft, and the money for it is there. And yet now we have nothing.”
On Wednesday, Eppert joined about 20 other home-care workers, union organizers, and politicians outside the California Labor Commission office in downtown Santa Barbara to protest and formally file wage-theft claims for the overtime wages they were promised. Ten homecare workers filed claims as a part of a coordinated effort across the state.
“Hopefully Governor Brown gets the message that we’re upset across the state,” said Yesenia Decasaus, a home-care worker and regional coordinator for United Domestic Workers, which represents Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo workers. Of the 3,000 IHSS home-care workers here, Decasaus said: “In Santa Barbara, because there is a high cost of living, what you see in our home-care workers is that they work all day doing home care, but they also hold another job at night to make ends meet. So treating them like regular workers and giving them overtime would at least give them the ability to go home.”
Next in the wage-theft process, the home-care workers must meet with their employers before being able to move to a court hearing — though the workers expressed hope that their rights would be restored before that, either by Governor Brown granting the overtime pay without a federal mandate or with the Department of Labor winning its appeal against the federal court’s decision.
“Even if the rug got pulled out from underneath the federal provisions, that doesn’t mean that California can’t still do the right thing, especially because home-care workers here were expecting it, were promised it, were planning on it and it’s been approved and it’s been budgeted,” said Tim Allison, executive secretary treasurer of Tri-Counties Central Labor Council.
Allison said almost all of the money spent paying for overtime — which would have been $183.6 million over the first six months of 2015, according to the Los Angeles Times — is guaranteed to go back into the economy given how most home-care workers are living “on the razor’s edge.” As for why Governor Brown, who has frequently acted as a supporter of the working class, was not concerned about the home-care workers’ pay, Allison said he was “perplexed because in general this is a governor that has a history of championing the underdog.”
The Department of Social Services, which coordinates the IHSS, did not respond to the allegations of wage theft beyond resending the press release from their January decision to halt overtime and travel time payments. They did not comment further.
Most of the workers who filed wage-theft claims on Wednesday were immigrant or minority women, a trend that many of the protest’s speakers highlighted as representative of workers across the country and the history of the profession.
Eileen Boris, a feminist studies professor at UCSB and labor studies expert who spoke at the protest, said the entire problem of home-care workers not receiving full treatment as workers stems from racism “of the south and the north.” She said that because “many of the women who did the work were poor immigrant women and African-American women, home care became associated with welfare and with domestic work,” leading to home care’s exemption from the Fair Labors Standards Act of 1974.
But Eppert shrinks at the idea of welfare. She said she is “not one to get handouts” and that she is the first person to shout, “There’s a fraud!” She said all she wants is to be given equal treatment under the law, so much so that she prays every night for the overtime pay she was promised.
Councilmember Cathy Murillo attended the protest, and said she planned to send Governor Brown an official letter requesting that he provide the home-care workers with “the pay they deserve.”