D.C. Court Hears Home Care Minimum Wage, Overtime Arguments

The ongoing debate on whether home care workers should be afforded minimum wage and overtime protections entered a new chapter Thursday in a Washington, D.C. courtroom.

Three judges with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard oral arguments from attorneys in the case Home Care Association, et al. v. Weil, et al., a lawsuit brought forth by for-profit home care associations against the Department of Labor (DOL) rule that was struck down earlier this year.

The hotly contested rule would have granted home care workers the right to minimum wage and overtime protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Originally scheduled to have taken effect January 1, the DOL rule was overturned in two rulings by Federal District Judge Richard Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in December 2014 and January 2015.

Home care workers have been exempt from federal overtime and minimum wage protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which in 1974 was extended to most domestic workers but excluded home care aides.

Now, after more than 40 years of exclusion from these basic labor protections, home care workforce groups say it’s time to correct that wrong.

“I’m optimistic that the Court will agree that the companionship exemption instituted in the 1970s no longer makes sense for how the home care industry operates,” Robert Espinoza, vice president of policy at the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute (PHI) tells HHCN.

The push for labor protections comes as the home care industry is projected to create over 1 million new jobs over the next decade, according to PHI, while at the same time it grapples with a workforce turnover rate that is, on average, anywhere between 50-60%.

Within this context, home care labor groups like PHI advocate that labor protections are key to improving conditions for both caregivers and the elderly or disabled clients they serve.

“Strengthening overtime protections and wages for home care workers strengthens the workforce in general and makes quality of care more reliable,” Espinoza said.

Home care trade groups, however, like the National Association for Home Care & Hospice (NAHC) and Home Care Association of America (HCAOA) argue that creating such protections would have adverse effects.

The two groups, along with the International Franchise Association, filed a lawsuit to overturn the DOL rule last June, suggesting that the rule change would reduce consumers’ care options, increase their costs and limit the availability of caregivers.

NAHC could not be reached to comment as of press time.

While there is no clear-cut timetable as to when the next court action may happen in this ongoing debate, one of the main points still being emphasized in the court is whether the DOL has the authority or the legal precedent to rule on the issue.

And at least some court watchers believe another twist in the case could be coming. Two of the three judges appeared “sympathetic” to the DOL’s arguments, The Hill reported.

Until another decision is made, PHI says it will continue to advocate at the state level in efforts to make sure states are prepared financially and other ways to adapt to the potential rule change, said Espinoza.

“We want to continue to educate people on the value of strengthening home care jobs, because the long-term struggle is how do we create caregiving work?” he said.