The Harpy Hall of Fame is dedicated to those women who worked on behalf of advancing women’s rights, contributed to reshaping gender roles, or were just generally awesome and badass. These remarkable women left legacies that continue to resonate today.
Born in Jamaica, Evelyn Coke, like many West Indian immigrants, found work as a home health aide in New York City. Her life’s work–which she reportedly loved–was caring for the very elderly, ill and dying in their own homes, including cooking for them, bathing and dressing them, and administering medication, sometimes in shifts as long as 24 hours or more. But because of a loophole in a 1975 Labor Department regulation, the nation’s 1.4 million home care workers are exempt from the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Evelyn Coke and her colleagues often earned no more than $7 an hour and were forced to work multiple shifts without being paid overtime.
Evelyn Coke was an unlikely plaintiff who arrived at activism in a roundabout way. After being struck by a car in 2001, she became unable to work, and hired a lawyer, Leon Greenberg to sue for compensation. When seeking to determine her economic losses, her attorney learned by examining her pay stubs that Coke sometimes worked 70 or more hours a week without receiving any overtime pay (and yet she still managed to raise five children as a single mother, and buy her family house in Queens). Greenberg invited her to bring a test case challenging the 1975 federal exemption, and Coke agreed. Many of her costs were paid by the Service Employees’ International Union, whose members include home health workers.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City ruled in favor of Coke and home health workers, saying that it was “implausible” that Congress would have wanted the Labor Department to wipe out protection for an entire category of workers. But the Bush administration, and the company that Coke worked for–along with the City of New York and its mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who filed an amicus brief siding with them–opposed the ruling. When the case came before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the decision was reversed. Evelyn Coke’s attempt to receive fair pay for her labor was shut down, much the same way that Lily Ledbetter’s had been.
“I feel robbed,” Ms. Coke said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I feel glad it’s come to everybody’s attention; people are supposed to get paid when they work.”
The decision “is another blow to struggling, low-wage women,” said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center. The victims of the Roberts Court decision are almost exclusively women and primarily non-white women. The Bloomberg Administration and companies that employ home health workers, all claim that had Evelyn Coke won her case, it would have driven Medicare costs so high that many people would have been unable to afford home health care. Of course, they don’t think the solution is to reform the system; they would rather have the suffering of one class of citizens subsidize the comfort of another. They’d rather deny equal pay to women working one of the most important and undervalued jobs in the nation. Personally, I don’t believe for a second that the government would allow it to stand if 1.4 million educated white men were being screwed this way.
Because she was denied justice, in her last days Evelyn Coke could not afford a home health worker to provide her the same care that she had given so many clients. Her New York Times obituary said:
Ms. Coke’s health deteriorated until she died of heart failure on July 9, in Manhasset, N.Y., her son Michael Findlay said last week, after returning from his mother’s burial in Jamaica. He said he believed a serious bedsore had contributed to her death, and recalled the many people she had helped with bedsores.
This, to me, is the greatest injustice of all. Whether you are religious or not, there is no denying that caring for the ill and dying is one of the most spiritually profound acts we can perform for one another as human beings.Yes, it’s a job, but it’s a job with far greater implications for humanity than what most of us do for a living. And yet despite the fact that Evelyn Coke spent her life caring for others when they were at their most vulnerable, she was denied the same comfort at the end of her life. At the very least, I hope that she found some comfort in the tremendous wellspring of support she received when she stood up for her rights.
There may be a ray of hope that this case–like Lily Ledbetter’s–will be justly resolved by the Executive branch instead of the Supreme Court. The well-being and equality of Evelyn Coke’s colleagues is now in the hands of Hilda Solis, the Obama-appointed Secretary of Labor, who has has pledged to “fulfill the department’s mandate to protect America’s workers, including home health care aides, who work demanding schedules and receive low wages.”
This would be a belated, but important way to honor the legacy of a woman who deserved much better from our government and our society. In the tradition of my ancestors, I say aleyah haShalom v’zichronah livracha (may she rest in peace and oneness, and may her memory be a blessing).