Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Brown, unions spar over overtime pay for home care aides

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

President Barack Obama declared the other day that by executive order he will extend overtime pay to millions of workers who previously had been excluded by their occupations or pay levels.

His administration had already delivered, however, on overtime pay for workers who provide care to the aged and disabled in their homes as an alternative to institutionalization.

It affected the 350,000-plus workers who provide such care to 450,000 recipients in California under a federal-state-local program known as In-Home Supportive Services, or IHSS, one of the state’s fastest growing “safety net” services.

IHSS workers, who average about $12.35 an hour, are chosen by recipients – many of them relatives, even parents or children. Thanks to a change in state law during former Gov. Gray Davis’ administration, they are also highly unionized public employees.

When, therefore, the U.S. Department of Labor declared in new regulations last year that IHSS workers would be eligible for overtime pay, effective next January, it was a big win for IHSS unions such as California United Homecare Workers.

That may have been a short-lived victory. Four months later, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed in his 2014-15 budget that IHSS workers be legally prohibited from working more than 40 hours a week to prevent the Obama overtime decree from pushing program costs even higher than the estimated $7 billion projected next year.

Brown’s overtime curb has touched off an intense political conflict pitting him against home care unions, with his fellow Democrats in the Legislature caught in the middle.

The unions are packing legislative budget hearings with workers and their disabled clients, pressuring legislators to deny Brown’s request. It would be disruptive and impractical, they contend, to force aid recipients to hire multiple caregivers to avoid the overtime cap – especially when relatives are involved.

The Legislature’s budget analyst, Mac Taylor, has been critical of the proposal as well, doubting whether the supply of caregivers would be sufficient if overtime is banned and saying that it could result in some recipients not receiving the aid they need to live independently.

Taylor suggests more flexibility in scheduling, including overtime for some workers under some circumstances, especially when alternate caregivers are not available.

The IHSS flap is one of several points of friction between Brown, who says he wants to hold the line on spending even though the state budget is no longer in deficit, and advocates for safety net services that were slashed during periods of fiscal distress.

Brown is insisting that extra funds should go into a rainy-day fund. But pressure from safety net advocates is mounting as the state’s surpluses grow.