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A proposal by the Obama administration could require health care agencies in Utah to pay their in-home workers at least minimum wage plus overtime — guarantees extended to most American workers since 1938, but not to those who help aged and disabled people live independently.

Utah is among 29 states that would be affected by the proposed U.S. Labor Department rule change to reclassify skilled home-health workers. Such workers were exempted from the wage guarantees in 1974 because they were considered companions, similar to babysitters, for elderly and disabled people.

In its December announcement, the White House said today's home-care workers "are professional caregivers, not mere companions."

The proposed regulation, said Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, would ensure they receive "appropriate" compensation and that employers who already pay at least minimum wage plus overtime aren't at a competitive disadvantage.

Among the nation's 1.79 million home-care workers, 1.59 million are employed by agencies; 92 percent are women; nearly 30 percent are African-American; 12 percent are Hispanic; and nearly 40 percent rely on public assistance such as Medicaid and food stamps, according to the Labor Department.

The National Partnership for Women & Families, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit advocacy group, applauded the administration's move. "The home care workforce is essential in our rapidly aging country," said a statement from the group's president, Debra Ness.

By 2015, a Utahn will turn 65 every 23 minutes, according to a state aging analysis.

Utah is expected to see a 75 percent increase in the number of such workers between 2008 and 2018, according to PHI, a New York-based advocacy group for home health workers and personal care attendants.

In a PHI study released at the same time as the Obama proposal, researchers found the median Utah wage for home-health aides in 2010 was $10.17 per hour; for personal-care aides it was $9.03 — well above the current federal and Utah minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. (The PHI report did not look at whether the workers also received overtime pay.)

The proposed regulatory change would no longer allow home-health agencies to choose whether to pay minimum wage plus overtime and would require states to ensure the protections, said PHI spokeswoman Deane Beebe.

Already, though, "some agencies are paying more," Beebe said. "They need to do that to be competitive [for employees]."

Daron Cowley, spokesman for Intermountain Health Care, said the rule change wouldn't have any impact on what they pay their home health workers because "we already pay at least minimum wage and overtime."

So does Applegate Home Care & Hospice, one of the state's largest home health agencies, said administrator Marcia Lindelien.

At Intermountain, certified nursing assistants (CNAs) are credited $15 per visit — generally an hour and 20 minutes — for their eventual paycheck. Workers who document more than 40 hours per week are paid overtime.

Generally such workers are CNAs, who achieve their qualifications through specialized education they pay for and must continue to update. CNAs, sometimes called nurses' aides, orderlies, patient care technicians and home health aides, work under the supervision of a nurse to help patients with daily living tasks.

Some CNAs are working toward other careers in health care, while many others consider that work their career, said Beth Noyce, a nurse who has worked in upper management for several Utah home health agencies for more than 20 years.

Zac King, a 27-year-old CNA, has been a home care worker for four years. Currently working for Intermountain Homecare, the Logan man grew up working on a dairy farm but said he wanted meaningful work that would change people's lives.

That's what he's done for Jason Christensen, a 24-year-old Sandy resident with a rare form of congenital muscular dystrophy known as rigid spine syndrome.

The two bonded over Star Wars, video games and X-Men discussions, with King, a gifted mimic, voicing the characters and cracking Christensen up while helping him with his daily needs.

King "gives you a good reason to talk, gives you the strength to start your day," Christensen said.

His dad, Bill King, fully supports the wage proposal. CNAs, he said, provide "an underrated, under-appreciated skill.

"If there were more people like Zac," he said, "who could make a better living at it, it would be better for patients."

CNAs have the most intimate, direct contact with patients, assisting with bathing, using the toilet, dressing and oral care, Noyce said. They also help with basic housekeeping, changing beds and preparing meals. Some are trained to help with exercises.

"I know people who have been doing it for decades, which can be very taxing physically," Noyce said. —

Pay for home health care workers

Utah is among 29 states that do not include home health care workers in their minimum wage and overtime laws. The others are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Five states and the District of Columbia extend minimum wage protection but no overtime: Arizona, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Ohio.

Sixteen states ensure minimum wage and overtime to most home-health workers: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland,Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin. —

The back story

Numerous bills have been introduced in Congress to change the wage law to ensure home-health workers receive at least minimum wage for a 40-hour week and time and a half overtime for extra hours, but the bills have stalled. The Labor Department is allowed to change the rules without congressional action. The department has yet to formally propose the rules. Once they do, interested parties will have 60 days to comment at

The change would leave the current companionship exemption intact for that type of work.

For more information, including the text of the proposed rule and a fact sheet: