John O'Connor

I can say with a straight face that I’m not a complete stranger to the battle over decent living wages.

My first job — washing dishes in a restaurant — actually paid below the minimum wage. The guy who was paying me such a paltry sum apparently had it worse; he was later forced to go out of business.

Conversely, I’ve also seen some of the autos, homes and lifestyles maintained by nursing home owners who insist they can’t afford to pay the help a living wage, much less anything at all for overtime. Let’s just say they prove beyond a doubt that irony is still with us.

But what’s more the norm are the many businesses that are squeezing by, but would have no choice but to shut down or reduce staff if higher wage requirements were put in place. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the scenario many may soon be looking at.

Last week, President Obama announced he will ask the Labor Department to issue enhanced overtime-pay protections for nursing home employees and others who currently are not paid for extra time they put in.

Under current rules, most hourly workers must be paid time-and-a-half if they work beyond 40 hours in a week. However, most salaried workers do not need to be paid overtime, unless they earn less than $455 a week. There are quite a few nursing home workers who fit into this second category.

At first glance, this would seem to be good news for salaried workers earning what amounts to $11.38 an hour. But a pay hike does little good if it arrives with a pink slip.

Sadly, there is no one-size-fits-all answer here. The reality is that many people in this sector are poorly paid because their employers are unable to offer more. Yes, there are some nursing home owners living like royalty. But so too are there many owners wondering how they are going to make the next payroll.

For all of its rewards, this can be a very tough business to be in. And well-intentioned but ill-conceived fixes (such as arbitrarily raising rates) tend to make it that much tougher. For everyone.