Home Care Workers Call for End to Wage Theft

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Recently, home care workers from around the country came to Washington, DC to call for an end to wage theft. Picketing outside of a low-road employer accused of not paying its employees, personal care attendants and home health aides talked about the impact on their lives of not being paid for hours worked.

Michael, a DC home care worker for more than 11 years, said that because of poverty wages and missing or inconsistent pay, he’s needed to move five times in the past three years. Robin, a personal care attendant from Minnesota, said that she worked for 45 days without pay, and on the 46th day, the company filed for bankruptcy, leaving her and her colleagues with nothing. That home care agency, Crystal Care, owes an estimated $1.4 million to its 800 workers.[1]

The unique nature and isolation of this work, coupled with a lack of oversight, can lead to gross labor violations. A 2009 report, co-authored by NELP, found that nearly 83 percent of home care workers reported overtime violations, 90 percent reported off-the-clock violations (working before or after shifts without getting paid), and nearly 18 percent reported minimum wage violations.[2] Stories like Michael’s and Robin’s are all too common amongst home care workers, but there are policy solutions that can prevent these abuses.

Greater oversight, enforcement, and worker organizing can help fight wage theft:

  • As our 2015 report, Upholding Labor Standards in Home Care, notes, with public dollars funding 83 percent of home care services, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and state Medicaid offices have a leading role to play in setting industry standards and preventing publicly-funded agencies from profiting from labor violations.[3]
  • State and federal labor enforcement agencies should prioritize enforcement efforts in the home care industry and should investigate claims with an eye towards identifying and holding liable all potential employers, not just the employer that hired or that pays the worker.[4] Having dedicated enforcement staff just for home care focuses public resources on a high-violation workforce, as a proposed NYC law would do through the creation of an Office of Paid Caregiving.
  • Ensuring workers have and use a private right of action gives workers more options to combat wage theft, and yields good results for classes of workers experiencing the same problem. A Washington, DC class action lawsuit aims to recover as much as $150 million in unpaid wages and damages.[5] Robust enforcement is especially crucial now, to ensure employers abide by new federal minimum wage and overtime rights that went into effect last year.
  • Lastly, organized workers have successfully fought abusive practices through collective bargaining, grievance processes, and supporting each other. In 2014, Minnesota home care workers like Robin voted to unionize with SEIU Healthcare Minnesota. Union president Jamie Gulley noted, “Now that we have a contract in place, the union is able to ensure that people are paid appropriately each pay period,” filing a grievance if necessary.[6] The National Domestic Workers Alliance, Fight for $15, and other traditional and nontraditional worker organizing has helped to connect otherwise isolated workers and harness their collective power.

The demand for quality home care rises each day as our older adult population increases and people want to remain at home. If we are to attract and retain a quality home care workforce to meet that demand, we must end the all-too-common practice of wage theft, which allows unscrupulous companies to profit from deplorable working conditions and forces workers out of the profession.

Thankfully, home care workers, consumers, family caregivers, employers, and advocates are standing up to call for greater investments in and oversight of the home care industry. A DC resident created a petition calling on that city’s elected leaders to disqualify law-breaking agencies from receiving taxpayer dollars; protect home care workers from wage theft; and give home care workers, consumers, and families a voice in DC’s home care system. That collective voice, replicated across the country, will be needed to end wage theft once and for all. A victory at hand, if you were listening to the crowd of home care workers and supporters as they chanted, “I believe that we will win.”

Endnotes

[1] Barb Kucera, Home health care workers cheated out of hard-earned pay, Workday Minnesota, February 22, 2016. http://www.workdayminnesota.org/articles/home-health-care-workers-cheated-out-hard-earned-pay

[2] Center for Urban Economic Development, National Employment Law Project, and UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers, 2009. http://www.nelp.org/publication/broken-laws-unprotected-workers-violations-of-employment-and-labor-laws-in-americas-cities/

[3] National Employment Law Project, Upholding Labor Standards in Home Care: How to Build Employer Accountability Into America’s Fastest-Growing Jobs, December 2015. (page 20) http://www.nelp.org/content/uploads/Report-Upholding-Labor-Standards-Home-Care-Employer-Accountability.pdf

[4] Id (page 21)

[5] Perry Stein, D.C. home health-care workers file class-action suit alleging wage theft, Washington Post, April 8, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2015/04/08/d-c-home-health-care-workers-file-class-action-suit-alleging-wage-theft/

[6] Barb Kucera, Home health care workers cheated out of hard-earned pay, Workday Minnesota, February 22, 2016. http://www.workdayminnesota.org/articles/home-health-care-workers-cheated-out-hard-earned-pay

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