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Why Bend the Arc Cares About Home Care Workers

Alan van Capelle
February 13, 2012

A letter from Alan van Capelle

Shortly after I became CEO of Bend the Arc in January of 2012, we launched our campaign in support of home care workers. I was, quite frankly, shocked to learn that America’s 1.7 million home care workers are not protected by minimum wage and overtime guarantees that most of us take for granted. 

This exclusion makes no sense to me, but is part of a long legacy of devaluing the work of women and African Americans. So we launched a campaign to organize Jews to speak out on behalf of this critical workforce.

This is a very personal campaign for me. I grew up visiting my grandmother in Queens, New York, and later, when I attended Queens College, I lived with her. My grandmother lived for more than 40 years in a row house on 249th Street, and her sister, Gladys, lived next door in an identical house. They shared everything. They had the same furniture, the same friends, the same two sets of dishes – one for meat, one for milk – even the very same back and front yards. But when they grew old, they shared something else: toward the end of their lives, each suffered with dementia and needed full-time care, which my family could never have provided without the help of home health aides. Not only did these women care for my great aunt and my grandmother with kindness and skill, something magical happened – they immediately became part of our family.

Today, my partner Matt and I are raising our son, Ethan, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in what I recently learned is a federally designated Naturally Occurring Retirement Community.  Many of our neighbors are older New Yorkers who require in-home care. My next door neighbor, June, is bed-ridden and requires round-the-clock assistance. In looking out for June, Matt and I have come to know the women who care for her. They stop by our apartment and play with the baby, but they spend most of their time attending to June’s most intimate needs – bathing, eating and dressing, ensuring that her medications are taken properly – and making sure that she can live out her days in familiar surroundings, without loneliness and fear.

The women and men who allow our most vulnerable family members to live with dignity should be able to live with dignity themselves, but 50 percent of all home care workers quit each year because they simply can’t support their families on what they earn by taking care of ours. This not only has obvious implications for the quality of care – it’s just plain wrong. It’s also foolish, especially in a nation like ours where the proportion of folks over 65 is on a 90 degree trajectory straight up.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandates minimum wage and overtime protections, was groundbreaking when Congress first passed it in 1938 with the goals of fighting poverty and stimulating economic growth. Those goals are surely as important today as they were back then, but they are undermined by excluding millions of Americans from the protections of the law.

That’s why, in December, President Obama issued a proposal to rectify this long-term injustice with a Department of Labor rule change.

While there are many good employers in the home care industry, a well-organized contingent of this multi-billion dollar business immediately lined up to oppose minimum wages and overtime for home care workers, using scare tactics to generate negative comments about the proposed change. We knew that with the President’s proposal under attack, it was critical that the Department of Labor hear from the other side and receive as many supportive comments as possible. We also knew it was important that they hear from a diverse group of people, including members of the Jewish community.

We asked for support and more than 1,000 people sent comments through our website to the Department of Labor in support of extending minimum wage and overtime protections to home care workers. One hundred and sixty rabbis, and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, signed on in support of our campaign. Now, as we await final word from the Department on the rule change, I can personally assure you that Bend the Arc will continue to fight for the rights of home care workers, and to show that the Jewish tradition of standing up for fair labor practices is alive and kicking.

With Hope,

Alan van Capelle

Alan van Capelle
Chief Executive Officer

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Alan van Capelle
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