LaborPress

NEW YORK, N.Y.—City Councilmember Christopher Marte (D-Manhattan) has introduced a bill to outlaw 24-hour shifts for home health-care aides, prohibiting them from having to work more than 12-hours-a-day except in emergencies.

“This is long overdue. No one should be working 24-hour shifts,” he told LaborPress May 31, just before a rally near City Hall organized by the Ain’t I A Woman campaign, where he led a call-and-response chant of “No More! Twenty-four!”

Council Member Christopher Marte with home health aides at City Hall this week. Photos by Steve Wishnia.

The bill, Intro 175, would amend the city’s Fair Workweek Act of 2017 (which requires employers to give fast-food and retail workers predictable schedules) to prohibit employers from assigning aides to work more than 12 hours in a 24-hour period or more than 50 hours in a week. It would allow an exception for “unforeseeable emergent circumstances,” when they could stay for up to two hours longer. A staffing shortage would not qualify as an emergency.

Few home-care attendants outside New York City do 24-hour shifts, Marte told LaborPress. Medicare allows care for patients who need round-the-clock assistance to be split into two shifts, but insurance companies can decide whether to hire one or two workers to cover the 24 hours.

Home health aides have long denounced the 24-hour shifts as physically punishing and institutionalized wage theft. “Twenty-four-hour shifts have turned me into a patient,” Rui Ling Wang, a retired home attendant for the Chinese-American Planning Council, told the rally, speaking in Chinese through a translator. After 10 years taking care of a paralyzed patient who needed their diapers changed, she now suffers chronic back pain, high blood pressure, anxiety, and insomnia.

“My whole body has become numb,” said Fang Chen, an attendant for 13 years, also speaking in Chinese. She said she had to get up seven or eight times a night, and it was hard to get back to sleep because she was worrying about the patient.

State labor regulations allow employers to pay workers for only 13 hours of a 24-hour shift, on the presumption that they’re off during the other 11, sleeping or eating. A 2019 decision by the state’s highest court reversed a lower-court ruling that workers should be paid for the full 24 hours, although it said they would be entitled to wages if they could show they had not gotten five hours of uninterrupted sleep during a shift. 

“The patient needs 24 hours of care, so I can’t say, ‘I’m just working for 12,’” said Lai Yee Chen, an attendant for eight years.

“It’s the same old sweatshop labor that we’ve been trying to stamp out for generations,” Councilmember Shaun Abreu (D-Manhattan), one of the Marte bill’s 20 cosponsors, told the rally. “It’s unbelievable that we allow contracts with nonprofits for 24-hour workdays,” said Councilmember Julie Won (D-Queens), also a cosponsor.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams has also signed on. 

Suffering for years: Home health aides, the overwhelming majority older women of color, are hoping NY’s female-led City Council will finally ban 24-hour shifts.

Sonia Ossorio, president of the city chapter of the National Organization for Women, told the rally she hoped the Council — which has a female majority for the first time in history — would pass a bill to give women workers rights.

“The bill today is really about protecting the health and lives of women. Those who attempt to say this bill is too costly are advocating to allow employers to continue inflicting violence against women of color workers,” said Yanin Pena of National Mobilization Against Sweatshops. 

Because Medicaid pays most of the cost of home care, a common estimate is that it would cost the state $1 billion a year to pay workers for 24 hours. “We can’t control the wages, but we can control the hours,” Marte said. 

“The home-care agencies make the decision to take on really terrible deals,” David A. Lee, legislative director for Assemblymember Ron Kim (D-Queens), told LaborPress: They are signing contracts “knowing full well” that they can’t afford to give workers full pay, and the city and state hire the agencies knowing that they are effectively paying workers less than minimum wage.

Assemblymember Kim said in a statement endorsing the bill that it would “put an end to the contemptible practice of the 24-hour shift in our city’s home-care industry.”

“We can no longer tolerate home-care agencies in our city who disparage our human rights and labor law, and shamelessly coerce immigrant women of color home-care workers into lives of relentless labor violence and unyielding toil,” he added, pledging to. continue to fight to get a similar state law enacted. 

That may be an uphill battle in Albany. Bills with identical limits on home attendants’ hours, sponsored by state Sen. Roxanne Persaud (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Harvey Epstein (D-Manhattan), did not get as far as a committee hearing in both the 2019-20 and 2021-22 legislative sessions.

“Many things are an uphill battle in Albany, but we are committed to seeing this through,” said Lee.

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