Court upholds federal minimum wage, overtime pay for home health care workers

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Overturning a lower court decision, a federal appeals court panel has upheld the Obama Administration Labor Department’s rules mandating minimum wages and overtime pay for up to two million home health care workers nationwide.

The home health care workers and their allies hailed the judges’ decision, saying it would bring the workers out of the low-paying shadows many now toil in. A majority of home health care workers earn under $10 an hour, the National Domestic Workers Alliance says.

An overwhelming majority of them are women, minorities, or both.

“This is an enormous step forward for home care workers and for our country. We are closing the sad chapter of racial discrimination that was ingrained in the Fair Labor Standards Act and ensuring two million home care workers now have the same protections the vast majority of Americans have at work,” said Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry.

SEIU organizes and represents thousands of the home health care workers, and has long fought to put that industry under federal minimum wage and overtime pay law.

The home health care industry tried to overturn the rules, arguing in lower courts that the workers are equivalent of maids, chauffeurs and other domestic service workers. DOL, noting conditions for caring for the elderly and disabled have greatly changed in the last several decades, disagreed. The old rules were instituted more than 40 years ago.

The rising and enormous costs of hospital or nursing home care have led more of the elderly and disabled to live at home, with third-party agencies sending caregivers to provide “companionship services and live-in-care within a home,” the three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals noted on August 21.

But since Medicare and Medicaid often pay for the care, the federal government has a right to change the rules on how – and how much – they’re paid. DOL did so, and judges backed the agency. DOL’s new rules, however, do not cover home health care workers whom the person, or their family, directly hires, without an agency referral.

The Supreme Court majority ruled in 2007, in a case SEIU sponsored, that home health care workers could – not must – be treated like babysitters and exempt from the FLSA. Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Sri Srinivasan said that left the ultimate ruling of how the home health care workers are treated up to the federal government.

That 2007 case “confirms the (Fair Labor Standards) Act vests the department with discretion to apply or not to apply the companionship-services and live-in exemptions to employees of third-party agencies,” he explained.

 “As more individuals receive services at home rather than in nursing homes and other institutions, workers who provide home care services…perform increasingly skilled duties analogous to the professional services performed in institutions,” the judges explained. That brings them under the FLSA.

“The department’s decision to extend the FLSA’s protections to those employees is grounded in a reasonable interpretation of the statute and is neither arbitrary nor capricious,” the judges concluded.

Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance called the ruling “a major step forward, recognizing the value of care work in today’s economy.” Her group, SEIU, Jobs With Justice, and the National Employment Law Project are lead defenders of DOL’s rules, though the Obama administration handled the court case and arguments before the judges.

The court’s decision “not only addresses a longstanding, shameful exclusion of professional caregivers from basic worker protections, it allows us to begin the real task at hand: strengthening this workforce for the enormous responsibility of caring for a growing aging population in America.”

Jobs With Justice Executive Director Sarita Gupta called the judges’ decision a win not just for the home health care workers, but for the families they serve. It would make the home care workforce more stable, she pointed out.

“Paying workers less than the minimum wage for their work hours, and not paying an overtime premium after 40 hours a week, benefits no one,” added NELP senior attorney Sarah Leberstein. “Low pay leads to burnout and high turnover and compromises care, which in turn create economic strains on the home care system. Many states already recognized the need to raise standards, and extending basic wage protections is a key element of that process.”

The ruling “means women and men who care for seniors and people with disabilities must be valued and respected. There’s no basis for discriminating against home care workers or holding us back anymore,” home health care worker Jacquelyn McGonigle of Denver told SEIU. “We are no longer invisible.”

Photo: Care worker speaking at Houston rally for home care workers, seniors, and people with disabilities. National Domestic Worker Alliance Flickr page


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.