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Honoring Evelyn Coke

She fought all the way to the Supreme Court to win justice for home care workers. Now we must honor her by advancing her cause.

For more than three decades, Evelyn Coke took care of elderly and disabled patients at homes throughout New York City. She got folks in and out of chairs and tubs, kept them fed and clean and comfortable. She made sure they had their medications. For many she was a lifeline to the outside world.

Yet because she did for a living what women do for free in the home, Evelyn Coke’s work was always under-valued. For 40 hours of work every week, she was poorly paid. And for the many hours she worked beyond that, she wasn’t paid at all. No laws were violated in the process.

Coke, a Jamaican immigrant and mother of five, was one of more than a million home care workers excluded from protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Seventy years ago, when the legislation was passed, Congress agreed to omit agricultural, domestic and personal care workers. They were, then as now, predominantly female and people of color.

In 1974, Congress amended the law to include some of those workers. But it explicitly kept out those it designated as babysitters and “companions.”

Evelyn Coke reminds me of Mildred, the domestic worker protagonist in Alice Childress’s Like One of the Family. Like Mildred, Evelyn Coke clearly valued her work and thought the world couldn’t function without it. She just wanted to be treated fairly—decent wages, a workplace that was clean and safe, time for rest and enjoyment.

So Coke decided to sue the home care agency for the overtime she’d been denied. Later the Service Employees International Union represented her. The issue was simple justice. Her case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the issue there was not justice but power: Did the Department of Labor have the authority to decide whether to cover home care workers? All nine justices agreed they did.

Unlike Lilly Ledbetter’s case, this one did not rally most women’s groups. The bill named after her did not garner huge attention in Congress or the media. Evelyn Coke did not campaign at the side of Barack Obama; by then she was in a wheelchair as the result of a car accident. And she will not be able to celebrate a victory that may come with this new administration. She died in early July. According to her son, a serious bedsore—the kind her skills had treated for so many others—hastened her death.

Evelyn Coke made a difference in the lives of many patients. And her courageous stand will make a difference for all caregivers. In June Senator Tom Harkin, who introduced a bill in 2007 to reverse the DOL’s rules, sent a letter signed by 14 other senators and 37 House members asking Secretary Hilda Solis to end the labor law’s exclusion of home care workers.

“Home care, increasingly, has become not casual work performed by a friend or family member but a full-time regular type of employment,” they wrote. “It is critical that these professional workers, who provide essential services to our nation’s elderly and disabled, have the same right to minimum wage and overtime pay as enjoyed by other workers.…[A]s our population ages, the demand... will only increase. Yet, there is already a shortage of qualified home care workers and there is a high turnover in the field.”

I met Secretary Solis several months ago and we talked about Evelyn Coke. “That’s just the kind of worker I want the Department of Labor to speak for,” she told me. In response to the Harkin letter, she has said that she intends to “fulfill the department’s mandate to protect America’s workers, including home health care aides, who work demanding schedules and receive low wages.”

Opponents argue that fulfilling that mandate would cost too much. The agency that employed Evelyn Coke said paying workers overtime would cause “tremendous and unsustainable losses.” New York City authorities filed a friend-of-the court brief, arguing worker protections would force more people into institutions, and would increase Medicaid costs by $250 million a year.

Justice for the Evelyn Cokes of this world will have a price tag. But the cost of injustice—poverty for full-time caregivers in one of the fastest growing fields of employment and one with a large turnover—is much higher.

For now, this household aide needs to become a household name. Let us honor Evelyn Coke posthumously as she should have been honored every day in her work.

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