With an aging population, the home care industry is rapidly growing in the United States, yet many of its employees’ wages are not currently protected under federal law. More specifically, home care employers are not required to pay home care workers minimum wage or overtime. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) established federally mandated minimum wage and overtime laws in 1974, but under those laws home care workers were exempt. Home care workers were considered to be in “companionship services,” which like a babysitter, meant that their work was not seen as labor intensive or potentially exploitative as other services.
In assisting the elderly and the disabled in their homes, home care workers may do everything from bathing and feeding the individual to light cleaning and grocery shopping, which is more than just “babysitting.” Home care workers also often work far more than 40 hours a week while caring for the elderly and disabled. The New York Times recently reported a major change for home care workers. Starting on January 1, 2015, home care workers will be subject to minimum wage and overtime laws. The late start date allows employers, often times families, but also Medicaid, to make necessary arrangements for the wage increases.
Exempt Status Not Just For “Learned Professionals”
Most people know that executives, administrators, “learned professionals,” like doctors and accountants, are considered exempt from many wage and overtime regulations. This is partly because these individuals are seen to be paid better than hourly workers and their hours are not always regularly set or trackable.
However, some unexpected industries and individuals are also considered exempt. For example, seamen, some agricultural workers, and some computer system analysts are not covered by wage and overtime laws. These exemptions are due to the nature of the work. In agriculture, some farms may only need workers for two months of the year, but for 12 hours a day every day for those 2 months. Requiring overtime for those 2 months of work could make harvesting financially unrealistic. But for farms that have more consistent crops and demands, workers may actually fall under FLSA regulations. The perceived difference in the nature of the work is why some agricultural workers are covered, but not all, and why home care workers were not covered.
Current Minimum Wage
Debates and protests over minimum wage have been in the news frequently. Federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour. According to the New York Times article, home care workers make between $8.50 and $12 an hour on average, but are rarely paid overtime. Washington State currently has the nation’s highest minimum wage at $9.19, but California will raise its minimum wage to $10 by 2016, up from its current $8. In November, SeaTac voters will have the opportunity to decide if their city’s minimum wage will increase to $15. If state and federal minimum wage levels differ, employers are required to pay whichever is higher.
Knowing if you are in an exempt industry or position and knowing current minimum wages guidelines can make a significant financial difference. An employment law attorney can assist in determining exempt status and if there is a possible wage claim for unpaid overtime.