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Monday, December 5, 2016

In the last years of her life, my mother was a home care worker for hospice.

Janey Schultz showed up early and spent entire days with people whose relatives could not care for them. They had their reasons: geography, jobs, squeamishness or their own infirmities. I never heard my mother judge any of them. She just showed up, day after day.

Politicians and employers often call women like my mother “companion caregivers.” To the people who depend on them, they often are called angels.

My mother’s co-workers joked that when Janey showed up, people lived longer. She’d be hired for days that stretched into weeks and often turned into months. She cooked for her patients and bathed them, too. She laughed with them as they thumbed through old photo albums, and she nodded silently by their beds when they needed to talk about their fears and regrets. She went to her own grave with their secrets.

It is not an exaggeration to say my mother loved her patients. That’s the word she always used when she talked about the elderly people she tended. “You can’t help it,” she once told me. “You always end up loving the people who need you.” In that way, she was not unique among home care workers. So often, they come into a home as strangers and leave as family.

This is not to romanticize home care providers or the work they do. It’s a tough job, and not everyone embraces it as God’s work. Still, most of the people I’ve met who do these jobs are, indeed, committed to providing good care. They’re also shamefully underpaid. In most states, they don’t even make minimum wage.

The U.S. Department of Labor is poised to do something about that. It may eliminate a 28-year-old exemption to the Fair Labor Standards Act so that home care workers receive minimum wage and overtime pay.