Inside the Winning Fight for Reparations in Athens, Georgia

Originally published in The Intercept on April 9, 2021.

WITHIN THE BOUNDS of a block in Athens, Georgia, three high-rise dorms stand where 50 Black families used to live. The dorms were built in the 1960s as part of the federal government’s urban renewal program, which empowered cities and colleges to seize property in the name of so-called slum clearance. As the University of Georgia and the Athens city government requisitioned lots and burned homes to the ground, they steered many residents into public housing. According to the University of Richmond’s “Renewing Inequality” project, 298 families in Athens were displaced during this period, 176 of them families of color.

In February, nearly six decades later, the county began its first attempt to offer redress. “The Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County extends to former residents of Athens’ Urban Renewal Districts, their descendants, and to all Athenians a deep and sincere expression of apology and regret for the pain and loss stemming from this time, and a sincere commitment to work toward better outcomes in all we do moving forward,” pledged Mayor Kelly Girtz in a signed proclamation. Two weeks after that, the county’s 10 commissioners voted unanimously to adopt a resolution that apologized specifically for the county’s role in destroying Linnentown, the Black, middle-class community that preexisted the UGA dorms. 

The resolution acknowledges the seizure of residents’ homes and the perpetration of “an act of institutionalized white racism and terrorism resulting in intergenerational Black poverty, dissolution of family units, and trauma.” It pledges, among other things, to erect an on-site memorial honoring the legacy of Linnentown and create a new center on slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the future of Athens’s Black communities. Perhaps most importantly, it promises to calculate the total amount of intergenerational wealth lost through urban renewal and use that number to inform annual participatory budgeting on projects for redress — in other words, public funding for reparations.

The resolution is the first official act of reparations in Georgia, but those involved in its creation hope it won’t be the last. They aim to model an example for communities throughout the state and across the country, even as they recognize their success in the progressive city of Athens will be difficult to replicate. Nationally, reparations remains controversial at best. Last summer, amid mass protests for racial justice, one poll found just 1 in 5 respondents agreed the United States should use “taxpayer money to pay damages to descendants of enslaved people in the United States.” At the time, the city council in Asheville, North Carolina, approved a reparations resolution, but leaders have since stalled in distributing funds, and the resolution’s lead sponsor lost his reelection. 

Still, Girtz told The Intercept, “I think it will spread to other places.” The mayor pointed to St. Paul, Minnesota, which earlier this year passed a resolution to study reparations, and his hometown of Norfolk, Virginia, which is also reckoning with its lasting segregation. Evanston, Illinois, a wealthy Chicago suburb, last month announced its own reparations program: a plan to distribute $10 million over the next decade to Black residents who can show that they or their direct relatives lived in the city and suffered from racial discrimination between 1919 and 1969.

In February, White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed that President Joe Biden is open to studying federal reparations, though Biden has not committed to signing H.R. 40, a bill to fund a study of slavery and recommend “appropriate remedies,” in the event that it passes. The former Linnentown residents say they hope to testify before Congress on reparations and the harms of urban renewal. They have also requested meetings with their new senators, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, and plan to push for a constitutional change at the state Legislature to make distributing direct payments easier.

Hattie Thomas Whitehead, a 72-year-old Black woman and fourth-generation Athenian, is one of at least 10 living former Linnentown residents. She knows their organizing work is far from over and that the next few months will be critical for ensuring that her government meets its pledges. Still, she can hardly believe they’ve reached this point.

“They voted on it in Black History Month, which is just a tremendous time for it to get approved,” she told The Intercept. “The night I watched the vote, and it was 100 percent, I was brought to tears.”

Thomas Whitehead lived in Linnentown until she was 14, when urban renewal came to Athens. Leaders burned down her home and directed her family into public housing. While details of Linnentown’s destruction had been passed down orally for decades, Thomas Whitehead said that until recently, descendants just lacked the hard data needed to make their case for justice. “Being part of this project has given me a voice,” she said. “It’s bringing healing.”

FINDING DATA ON the destruction of Linnentown began as an accident. A philosophy doctorate and library employee at UGA named Joseph Carter was doing research in December 2018 for a living wage campaign with the United Campus Workers of Georgia — hoping, he said, “to make the case for how the university suppresses wages in the county, and how that then has an effect on the local housing market.”

He called up an Athens-Clarke County commissioner, Melissa Link, who said she had heard rumors of an old community that used to be where three high-rise UGA dorms now stand. Carter began digging around in the UGA Special Collections Libraries, where he discovered many documents about urban renewal, including early 20th-century fire insurance maps that showed the Linnentown homes. The case file was called “Urban Renewal Project GA. R-50.”

Through a friend of Link’s, Carter connected with Geneva Johnson, a former Linnentown resident still living in Athens. When contractors demolished Johnson’s childhood home, her father was permitted to move another Linnentown house off-site to the neighborhood of East Athens, where she still lives today. Her home is one of just three surviving structures from the neighborhood.

Johnson, Carter, and Thomas Whitehead connected with three more Linnentown descendants, and together they launched a campaign called the Linnentown Project in September 2019.

That month, Thomas Whitehead spoke publicly about her displacement for the first time, in a speech she gave to a full house at a local arts center. In the autumn months that followed, the Linnentown Project began drafting its proposed resolution and started its outreach to UGA and city leaders. 

Word spread through the community, and by February 2020, dozens of residents and students poured into Athens’s City Hall to demand recognition and reparations for Linnentown descendants. Protesters stood with hand-painted signs bearing messages like “UGA Took Our Homes Away” and “Redress for Linnentown.”

EVEN IN A left-leaning city like Athens, unanimous support for reparations was in no way guaranteed. Some lawmakers initially shied away from using terms like “white racism and terrorism” to describe the displacement of Black families and the burning of their homes. According to Mariah Parker, a county commissioner who helped draft the proposal, some leaders found the language too harsh and feared alienation from the university, which has refused to acknowledge any harms related to Athens’s urban renewal. Commissioners Patrick Davenport and Russell Edwards were originally against the resolution, but by the night of the vote in February, Edwards apologized for his initial opposition.

“It was an act of terrorism. It was an act of white supremacy,” he said. Davenport voted in favor as well. 

Last June, Jerry NeSmith, another commissioner who opposed the resolution, died in an accident; his successor, Jesse Houle, made support for the Linnentown Project part of their campaign platform. Carol Myers, another commissioner newly elected last year, also ran in support of the Linnentown Project. 

As the year went on, some Linnentown Project activists protested for racial justice following the death of George Floyd. One local demonstration ended with Athens-Clarke police and National Guardsmen spraying tear gas on peaceful protesters, and soon after, Girtz approached Thomas Whitehead about moving forward with the Linnentown reparations effort.

“My hunch is he realized how much he screwed up with the protests, with the tear gassing and the arrests, and so then made the decision to move ahead with the Linnentown committee,” said Carter.

While a year of pressure, one-on-one meetings, and racial justice organizing helped bring the mayor and all 10 county commissioners on board, the university still spurns any suggestion of its culpability.

UGA sent a statement to Athens-Clarke County commissioners in January 2020, saying it “respectfully disagrees” with the “conclusions” of the Linnentown Project. As college enrollment surged during the 1960s, institutions nationwide began taking advantage of eminent domain to make room for new students. Historical documents reveal how UGA officials worked closely with city and federal leaders to leverage funds and move urban renewal forward.

Thomas Whitehead said she’s disappointed but not surprised UGA has given them the cold shoulder. “UGA has never acknowledged anything they’ve ever done that was not in the community’s favor,” she said. 

This year, the university is celebrating its 60th anniversary of desegregation, replete with signs and commemorative events throughout the spring. On its special website for the cause, the university is soliciting donations to “support diversity, equity and inclusion efforts across campus today.” 

Meanwhile, UGA continues to dismiss entreaties from Black Linnentown descendants. “They continue to ignore the residents and that in itself is just a continued slap in the face,” said Carter. “They’re just acting like it’s the 1960s all over again.”

UGA did not return The Intercept’s requests for comment.

While local leaders say they would prefer to partner with UGA to create their wall of recognition, Athens-Clarke County intends to build the memorial with or without the university’s collaboration.

“It’s best to acknowledge that there were some horrible things done in the not-so-distant past, because then we can move together more strongly,” said Girtz. “We’re going to be moving forward, and I would hope UGA joins us.”

THE ATHENS BUDGET planning period runs from now through June. As part of that process, a committee chaired by Thomas Whitehead and fellow Linnentown descendant Bobby Crook will make recommendations for how to spend the reparations funding.

Girtz is looking to hire an economist to help community members calculate how much more money Linnentown descendants might have today, had they been permitted to stay in their homes. He plans first to approach Mehrsa Baradaran, a former UGA law professor and the author of “Color of Money,” a book on the racial wealth gap. Baradaran now works as a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and progressives nationally have been pushing Biden to appoint her to lead the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Parker, the commissioner, said she sees the work ahead as focused on both delivering material redress to descendants of Linnentown and launching additional efforts to help other lost and displaced communities in Athens. She and several local activists plan to ramp up pressure on their state legislature to change the so-called gratuities clause in Georgia’s constitution. The clause, which was initially passed as an anti-corruption measure, prevents local governments from providing direct cash payments to individuals and nonprofits. This hampers not only reparations efforts but also broader economic relief.

In January and February, Thomas Whitehead sent letters to Ossoff and Warnock’s offices to request assistance tackling Georgia’s gratuities clause. The senators have not yet answered, nor did they return The Intercept’s requests for comment.

Carter acknowledges that the success in Athens could be difficult to replicate elsewhere, particularly given the treasure trove of evidence they had available to make their case.

“There are communities in Atlanta that were affected by Georgia Tech and Georgia State that we want to take a look at, but the thing I’m concerned about is the availability of historical documents and who from those communities is still around,” he said. “To do this organizing you have to come with evidence, and with residents who see this as something that they want. Are the residents alive? Are they willing? Interested?”

According to Carter, an essential part of the process in Athens is that the decisions about how to achieve reparations have been on the Linnentown descendants’ own terms, and that they’ve been given power by their local government to make those calls. 

“We believe part of reparations should be to reallocate not just money but political power,” he said. “It’s not just you write a check and you’re done.”


The Other Race on Georgia’s January Ballot

Originally published in The Intercept on November 23, 2020.

WHEN GEORGIA VOTERS cast their ballots in the U.S. Senate runoffs, with Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock facing off against Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, they’ll also be weighing in on another statewide contest that had no clear winner on November 3: public service commissioner.

The Georgia Public Service Commission — a relatively obscure but highly consequential five-member body — makes important decisions like setting rates on Georgians’ electric bills and determining state investments into renewable energy. The commission has been controlled for years by Republicans who sit six-year terms, but this year District 4 Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald fell just shy of the 50 percent needed to win reelection, with Democrat Daniel Blackman earning 46.9 percent of the vote.

One of Blackman’s central campaign arguments is that the Public Service Commission has been too friendly to utility companies at the expense of customers and has not made fighting climate change an urgent priority. Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company and a regulated state monopoly with 2.6 million customers, has pushed the commission to charge higher rates even as Southern Company earns billions in profit. Georgia Power is also a major producer of coal ash, toxic residue created when coal is burned by power plants to produce electricity. Environmental activists have been pushing resistant state lawmakers to enact tougher regulations over coal ash storage, and they see the election of Blackman, a politician willing to speak out against Georgia Power, as a way to bolster their campaign.

Blackman said he knows no one in the state party really expected him to make it to the runoff, and his campaign didn’t depend on the party, either, which was focused on the U.S Senate and presidential races. “Democrats get excited when there’s a big election, but we have a real chance now to appeal to voters who have felt disenfranchised for a long time,” Blackman said, adding that his platform of “energy security, energy equity, and lower rates” has been a way to bridge coalitions between Democrats, Republicans, progressives, moderates, and those who never vote at all.

THE STATEWIDE Public Service Commission runoff was originally scheduled for December 1, but on November 11 Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced that due to the ongoing election disputes, the planned presidential recount, and the two U.S Senate runoffs, he would be postponing the commission runoff to make it easier for election workers.

Supporters of Blackman, like Travis Town in Troup County, Georgia, are relieved that the runoffs will be combined on one ballot, since it would likely boost turnout for the commissioner vote. “I don’t think people are informed about the PSC, the majority of folks are just eking out day-to-day existence,” Town said. “I was worried about that election being right after Thanksgiving.”

Blackman, who has advised the Congressional Black Caucus and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on environmental justice issues and served as Georgia’s political director for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential bid, said he will also be an advantage to Warnock and Ossoff, because his contest deals with issues directly of concern to disenfranchised voters.

Blackman pointed to a recent study from WalletHub that found Georgia has the eighth-highest utility rates in the country and the fifth highest electric rates. “Everyone has an electric bill,” he said.“When you look at Warnock and Ossoff, their biggest arguments are the [Affordable Care Act], the Supreme Court, and election protection. No disrespect at all to those, but a lot of average people at their dinner table aren’t talking about that — but they are talking about their grandmother and grandfather on a fixed income with their lights about to be cut off.” Blackman also noted that many young voters are single-issue voters on climate, and the Public Service Commission has direct influence over investments into areas like solar energy. “What we are able to do is add value to the Democratic argument as it relates to climate change,” he said.

McDonald, who is 81 and would be 88 at the end of his next term if he wins, was originally appointed to fill a vacant commissioner seat after serving 20 years as a state representative. While he has touted his work in pushing the commission to invest in solar, advocates say he has not used his platform to make fighting climate change a top priority, including pushing back on some of the anti-climate measures coming from the Trump administration.

The PSC Accountability Project, an effort led by the Georgia Conservation Voters Education Fund and the Georgia Ethics Watchdogs Education Fund, has said that 85 percent of McDonald’s contributions have come from companies and people that may profit from the commission’s decisions. Utility companies can’t donate directly to commissioners’ campaigns, but individual employees can. McDonald told The Intercept that he could not comment for this story due to being tied up with hearings this week, though in October he told the Atlanta NPR affiliate that he’s not influenced by the industries he regulates. “As far as the influence of minor contributions, it’s no more than my neighbor giving me a contribution, or people in my church, or people that know me, it’s all within the framework of the laws,” he told WABE. “I’m not an expert in every area of the world, and when they bring advice, I listen. I listen to both the negatives of those and the positives of those, and at some point in time, I make a decision.”

One of Blackman’s central campaign arguments is that the Public Service Commission has been too friendly to utility companies at the expense of customers and has not made fighting climate change an urgent priority. Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company and a regulated state monopoly with 2.6 million customers, has pushed the commission to charge higher rates even as Southern Company earns billions in profit. Georgia Power is also a major producer of coal ash, toxic residue created when coal is burned by power plants to produce electricity. Environmental activists have been pushing resistant state lawmakers to enact tougher regulations over coal ash storage, and they see the election of Blackman, a politician willing to speak out against Georgia Power, as a way to bolster their campaign.

Blackman said he knows no one in the state party really expected him to make it to the runoff, and his campaign didn’t depend on the party, either, which was focused on the U.S Senate and presidential races. “Democrats get excited when there’s a big election, but we have a real chance now to appeal to voters who have felt disenfranchised for a long time,” Blackman said, adding that his platform of “energy security, energy equity, and lower rates” has been a way to bridge coalitions between Democrats, Republicans, progressives, moderates, and those who never vote at all.

Another area climate activists have expressed frustration with Public Service Commission members is around two nuclear reactors under construction at Plant Vogtle in Burke County. Blackman himself calls the project “one of the most fiscally irresponsible decisions in Georgia,” demonstrating how he employs rhetoric that appeals both to progressives and conservatives. Originally approved by state lawmakers in 2009, the Georgia Nuclear Energy Financing Act permitted Georgia Power to charge customers in advance for the construction of the two nuclear reactors, adding roughly $10 a month to an average customer’s bill. But today, the reactors are years behind schedule and billions over budget, and Blackman said thanks to the commission, ratepayers will have to pay those overruns in the form of even higher Georgia Power energy bills. “The Republicans on the PSC have approved every single Plant Vogtl monitoring report and every single integrated resource plan and every single budget for the last decade,” he said. “Those decisions were made to keep a very small group of folks in the utility industry very wealthy.”

In December 2019, the Public Service Commission voted to raise the rates of Georgia Power utility bills by $1.8 billion over three years. While this was less than what Georgia Power requested, commissioners approved the rate increases, saying they wanted to ensure that the company remained successful as it made new investments. The average customer saw their energy bill rise by about $6 per month in 2020, and will see another 2 to 2.5 percent increase in 2021 and another 4.5 to 5 percent in 2022. John Kraft, a spokesperson for Georgia Power, cited federal tax credits and interest savings from Department of Energy loan guarantees as ways the company has “actively pursued customer benefits” to reduce the impact to consumers. The loan guarantees, he said, will save customers “approximately $550 million in financing costs overall.” Kraft also emphasized that the company does not endorse political candidates.

“Folks don’t want to pay higher power bills, and Georgia Power doesn’t need the money,” said Brionté McCorkle, executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters, which has endorsed Blackman. “But they keep getting the PSC to do these things, and it just hurts the consumer.” Utility costs have become an even more serious issue for consumers during the Covid-19 pandemic; Georgia Power ended its pandemic utility shutoff moratorium in mid-July, and nationwide activists have been trying to raise awareness about the public health implications of utility disconnections.

In 2019, Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning’s pay jumped 30 percent, up $3.7 million in a single year. His total take-home compensation last year was $27.9 million.

ADVOCATES SAY Georgia Power’s resistance to being regulated is one reason state House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, the rare Democrat representing a rural Georgia district, lost his election in November. Trammell, a moderate first elected in 2014, held his seat in 2016, even as his district voted for Donald Trump, and in 2018, when his district voted for Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. Trammell’s seat became the Republican State Leadership Committee’s top target in the country this past cycle, with millions spent on electing Trammell’s opponent, David Jenkins. It was the most expensive statehouse election in Georgia history.

Trammell drew the ire of Georgia Power over the last year, as, among other things, he supported environmental advocates who have been calling to store coal ash in lined landfills. While Georgia lawmakers passed one bill this year — SB123 — that fixed a loophole that had made it cheaper to dump coal ash than regular trash, meaning that millions of tons of coal ash from neighboring states were being dumped in Georgia, the state legislature resisted Trammell’s bill — HB 756 — which would have required coal ash to be disposed of in lined pits. Georgia Power has been planning to excavate 10 of its 19 ash ponds into unlined pits, which advocates say do not adequately protect water sources.

Kraft, of Georgia Power, said the company has “worked with third-party professional engineers and geologists to design our plans on a site-by-site basis considering size, location, amount of material and the geology of the area among other factors.” He added that each closure design “is unique and designed to meet” state and federal coal ash standards. Environmental advocates plan to campaign again in the next legislative session for lined pit storage.

Residents from the rural city of Juliette, where a coal ash pond sits in contact with groundwater, traveled to the state capitol in February to advocate for Trammell’s bill and raise awareness of the contaminated water in their community. Georgia Power denies that its coal ash pods contributed to Juliette’s toxic water. In August, residents of Juliette filed a lawsuit against Georgia Power, alleging that the company polluted their water with coal ash. “Plaintiffs suffer from cancer, disorders of the cardiovascular, immune, renal and urinary, and respiratory systems; neurological, thyroid, liver, skin and cell damage; and developmental disorders, in addition to other personal injuries,” the complaint reads. “The cancer rate in Monroe County … is more than double the state and national averages. And Plaintiffs’ property values are devastated because of the contamination.” Georgia Power denies wrongdoing and the case is pending.

Blackman and his supporters say the Democratic Party needs to recognize that issues like fighting climate change and lowering utility rates have the potential to build broad coalitions capable of defeating well-funded conservatives, and there needs to be more attention paid to down-ballot races.

“It’s called the Public Service Commission because it serves the public,” said McCorkle. “What matters here is doing the right thing for the people of Georgia.”

With New Protections Tied Up in the Courts, Home Health Care Workers Aren’t Waiting Around

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 3rd, 2015.

Almost two years after the Obama administration extended historic labor protections to the nation’s 1.79 million home healthcare workers, those new rights remain in limbo. In September 2013, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced plans to amend a longstanding regulation that has excluded them from earning the federal minimum wage, overtime pay, and compensation for travel on the job. For home healthcare workers in the United States—a group that is nearly 90 percent female—this move marked a significant step towards setting a floor of decent labor standards.

But the rule-change, which was set to go into effect on January 1st, now faces a challenge in federal court, and critics say state legislators are using the ongoing litigation as an excuse to avoid implementing the new protections. At the same time, given that most home healthcare workers are paid through Medicaid and Medicare—two underfunded public programs—many also worry that states will respond to the rule-change by curtailing consumers’ access to quality care. Activists across the country are working to pressure their lawmakers to reckon with these new standards and avoid potential calamity.

Four decades ago, Congress decided that home healthcare workers should be classified more like babysitters who provide “companionship,” rather than as workers entitled to basic protections. Nursing home employees, by contrast, are fully covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), despite performing many of the same tasks. As home healthcare has ballooned in recent years, these occupational distinctions have become harder to justify.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. will need one million new home healthcare workers by 2022. But the work is draining, the pay is paltry, and turnover is high. When adjusted for inflation, home healthcare workers’ average hourly wages have declined by nearly 6 percent since 2004. In 2013, the average earnings of home healthcare workers totaled just $18,598. 2013 was also the year that the Obama administration decided it was well past time to update FLSA’s policy. Because the DOL has the authority to amend federal regulations, it was able to enact this change without seeking Congress’s approval.

Though the new DOL rule-change would most directly benefit home healthcare workers, it carries implications for all domestic workers, including nannies and housekeepers. “By improving the conditions and protections in one area, you’re broadly boosting the sense that this is dignified work,” says Elly Kugler, an attorney with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, (NDWA) a group representing domestic workers in the United States.

Whether that change will actually be implemented is another question. Last year three industry groups filed a lawsuit against the DOL rule-change, insisting that it would have a “destabilizing impact” on home healthcare and hurt millions of elderly individuals. On December 22, 2014, a D.C. district judge vacated the rule for third-party employers, arguing that the executive branch cannot make such a regulatory change. A few weeks later, the same judge also vacated FLSA’s revised definition of “companionship services.” The DOL filed a challenge in appeals court, and arguments will be heard later this spring. Some suspect this may ultimately make its way to the Supreme Court.

Then, on March 20th, Labor Secretary Tom Perez sent a letter out to all 50 governors, urging them to focus on budgeting the minimum wage and overtime protections now, “to ensure that [they] will prepared if the Department prevails” in appeals court. Across the country, activists are also pressuring their representatives to focus on these issues. Yet many lawmakers are using the litigation as an excuse to avoid reckoning with the thorny budgetary questions. This means workers may not see minimum wage, overtime, and travel pay increases anytime soon.

“In Georgia, we’re seeing that our lawmakers are not talking about these issues,” says Tamieka Atkins, who leads Atlanta’s chapter of NDWA. “They have the attitude that we’re not going to move on this until the lawsuit comes down.” In response, Atkins’ group launched a campaign to lobby lawmakers and health agency commissioners in advance of their next legislative session. They also started a petition—“Governor Deal: All Eyes Are On Georgia”—asking for gubernatorial support towards minimum wage and overtime.

Activists in Texas are also applying pressure to their leaders. In January, domestic workers launched a home healthcare campaign, bringing together consumer groups, disability rights organizations, and labor unions. The following month—for the first time ever—domestic workers traveled to Austin to share their personal stories and lobby state legislators. “It was a really great opportunity because we agitated on different levels,” says Mitzi Ordonez, a domestic worker organizer at the Fe Y Justicia Worker Center in Houston.What we found is that many of the lawmakers just didn’t know about these [DOL] changes.”

Compared to Texas and Georgia, some states have made greater progress towards implementing the new labor protections. California, which already pays its home healthcare workers minimum wage, allocated new funds for overtime pay in its 2014-2015 budget, and was prepared to pay workers more at the start of 2015. But after learning about the federal lawsuit, California Governor Jerry Brown decided to postpone the overtime pay, even though there is nothing legally obligating him to do so. Frustrated activists have launched a campaign in protest; they organized meetings with state legislators, held rallies and candle light vigils, and even set up a“Justice for Homecare Tribunal”—a mock trial against the state. “The best thing for us to do is to not rest on our laurels,” says Doug Moore, the executive director of the United Domestic Workers of America. “The governor wants this to go through the courts, but we will use pressure to change his position.” Moore says that if the DOL rule-change is upheld in appeals court, they will then move to demand retroactive overtime pay back to January 1st.

Yet for some states that have reckoned with the rule-change, the results haven’t always been encouraging. “What we have been seeing, unfortunately, is that you can equally comply with FLSA by paying overtime and travel time, or by setting caps on the number of working hours,” says Alison Barkoff, the Director of Advocacy at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. This scenario is playing out in states like Arkansas, which is looking to cap homecare workers to just 40 hours per week, and to limit each worker to just one customer per day. In effect, this would enable states to avoid paying workers overtime and travel costs. But such measures will hurt employees who make their living by piecing together multiple part-time jobs. It may also impact consumers who need more than 40 hours of care, or who may have a harder time finding someone willing to work for just a few hours per day.

Some hope that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Olmstead v. L.C. Supreme Court case, both of which protect disabled individuals from discrimination and unjustified segregation, will help consumers fight back against cuts to healthcare services. “The ADA and Olmstead provide important protections to consumers, but they won’t completely prevent a state from implementing restrictive policies,” Barkoff explains. “The laws do not prohibit a state from capping worker hours, so long as the state has a process for exempting individual consumers who will be seriously harmed. Most consumers will have to shift the way their care is provided.”

Meanwhile, labor activists maintain that their interests are not at odds with those of healthcare consumers, because quality care depends on creating sustainable working conditions. Many in the disability community have also signed amicus briefs in support of extending minimum wage, travel time, and overtime protections to home healthcare workers. “I think it’s important to know that there isn’t just one disability rights community,” says Sarah Leberstein, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project. “Many groups are very supportive, but they’re also really concerned about states taking it seriously and implementing the rules in a thoughtful way that doesn’t result in cuts to services.”

Even if upheld, the DOL rule-change may be hard to enforce. In New York City—a place that has instituted a progressive domestic workers’ bill of rights and a paid sick leave policy—activists have learned first-hand how enforcing these types of laws can be quite challenging.

“It’s really hard to be reliant on a complaint-driven process where workers have to come forth, but still fear retaliation,” says Irene Jor, a New York organizer with NDWA. Many domestic workers are also isolated in private homes, without much regular interaction with other workers who might provide them with moral support to raise grievances. Even once complaints are filed, not all are likely to be dealt with. “The Department of Labor, both on the federal and state level, is incredibly underfunded and does not have enough investigators,” says Leberstein. “So often they can’t simply respond quick enough, and they can’t do targeted enforcement.”

Nevertheless, if the DOL rule-change were upheld, it would be an important achievement. Some businesses would certainly have to adjust their operations to accommodate the new labor protections, but supporters of the rule-change insist that the industry’s opposition is overblown. According to national surveys, less than 10 percent of home healthcare workers even report working more than 40 hours a week. “We’ve also got many examples of big home care agencies that have figured out ways to pay workers properly, and still provide good care,” says Leberstein, who points out that many organizations already operate in states that require minimum wage and overtime protections. “So they’ve either figured out a way to do it and still earn profits, or they’re admitting to violating the laws in their state.”

Asking the public to pick between providing quality care and treating workers fairly is ultimately a false choice wrought through a political culture of austerity. States could avoid this by increasing funds towards Medicare and Medicaid, which would help ensure that the disabled and elderly can access the high-quality and flexible care without compromising national labor standards and worker dignity.

Though the future of the law is still unknown, one thing is clear. This is an issue that cannot be put on hold—thousands of health homecare workers live in poverty and 10,000 more baby boomers turn 65 every single day.