Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced his four freedoms almost two centuries after the Declaration of Independence. As with the brave rebels in 1776, the focus on independence came at a critical time in our history. In 1941, he set out an expression of basic human rights applicable to the whole human race:
- Freedom of speech and expression
- Freedom of worship
- Freedom from want
- Freedom from fear
The freedoms are all important, but in the FDR era, many minds remained focused on the freedom from want. Unemployment peaked at almost 25% during the Great Depression. (It fell to under 2% during World War II.) In 1938, FDR proposed and signed into law the Fair Labor Standards Act, imposing minimum wages and overtime pay requirements.
That law has become ingrained in our economy, but it contains some exemptions that create hardships. Late last month the Senate and House introduced bills to limit one of the exemptions. That exemption has relieved employers of the requirement to pay minimum wage to people providing home care or companionship services to disabled, sick or elderly people.
Called the Direct Care Job Quality Improvement Act of 2011, the law would allow the exemption only for occasional, casual work. Your teenage babysitter can still be paid less than minimum wage (if indeed you can find such a person), but not someone who works for a home health agency, someone who does this work for a living, or who works for someone who needs such care more than five hours a week, or more than twelve weeks in a row. (These restrictions are designed to avoid a gaping loophole in which an agency sends different people on different days.)
Congress’s findings of the needs for the new law include the statement of the expanding need for these workers (now serving 10,000,000 people), and the prediction of a serious shortage of workers able and willing, without even minimum wage protection, to take on the work. When one is not in dire want, the other freedoms are glorious parts of our nation’s heritage and hope for the future. But if our home workers can’t live, and we can’t get a worker to help us with daily living requirements, it is hard to focus on the abstractions like the freedom of speech or religion.
Happy Fourth of July.