In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that the minimum wage and overtime pay laws do not apply to home care aides. Although the opinion itself focused mainly on delegation of Congressional authority and statutory interpretation, this decision will likely exacerbate the staffing shortage problem already affecting the nursing home industry. The case, Long Island Care at Home, Ltd. v. Coke, was brought by a home care aide who sued her employer for failing to pay minimum wages and overtime wages, even when she worked 24-hour shifts.
In pursuing her case, the home care aide sought to invalidate regulations set by the Department of Labor that viewed home care workers as “companionship workers,” a category of employees for whom the Fair Labor Standards Act does not apply. Unfortunately, the Court deferred to the Department of Labor’s regulations, upholding the agency decision to put home care workers in the same category as maids, cooks, housekeepers, and babysitters.
Problems with at-home care and with nursing homes are the direct result of low wages in these industries. Low wages, in turn, have created a chronic understaffing problem with far-reaching effects. Workers who are underpaid and undervalued do not care as much about their jobs or about doing their jobs correctly, and this frustrates the most skilled and experienced staff into looking for work elsewhere. With even one less person to give their full attention to the demands of quality care, easily preventable injuries and ailments can go unnoticed. With low wages causing a vicious cycle of understaffing and the exodus of the most experienced care providers, the damage to the health care industry is overwhelming.
At a time of increasing home care needs of seniors, failing to provide minimum wage and overtime pay will adversely affect both those who seek home health care services and those who provide at home health care. Home care and nursing home care is time-consuming and demanding. Wage protections, such as the FLSA, need to be applied to home care workers to ensure that staff is skilled, experienced, and dedicated. In addition, the protection of fair labor laws is necessary to prevent the exploitation of this class of health care providers, many of whom are low-income women of color. Absent the protection of fair labor laws, the home health care industry will soon have to face a crisis in the ability to retain the staff needed to assist the nation’s growing population of seniors.