By Philip Davidoff
Wage and hour claims in the home care industry are on the rise. One of the reasons is 24 hour shift home care workers are claiming they should be paid for more than 13 hours work, as is the practice in New York. Federal and state courts and the New York State Department of Labor generally have reached different conclusions on how many hours pay must be paid to 24 hour shift workers. This article explains the laws and conflicting interpretations and the steps employers can take to minimize their exposure to wage and hour claims.
Minimum Wage Rate
The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the New York State Labor Law (NYLL) govern the wages paid and hours of work rules for home care workers. While similar in many respects they are not identical. The differences in these laws can result in costly missteps for employers.
It has been generally accepted that home care workers employed by home care agencies fall within the “companionship services” exemption of the FLSA.[i]. Under this exemption, home care workers are exempt from both the minimum wage and overtime requirements of the FLSA. Also, under the FLSA, a “live-in” worker is one who either has no residence other than the client’s home or works a minimum of five 24-hour shifts each workweek in the client’s home. In contrast, under the FLSA, a “sleep-in” worker works one or more 24 hour shifts each workweek in the client’s home, but does not work a minimum of five-24 hour shifts each workweek.
Independent of the FLSA, the minimum wage provisions of the NYLL provide, with few exceptions, that employers must pay at least the State’s minimum wage rate (currently $8.75 per hour in New York, $9.00 as of January 1, 2016) to all employees. New York courts and the New York State Department of Labor (“NYSDOL”) have said that home care workers employed by home care agencies are covered by this minimum wage provision.[ii],
Under New York’s Minimum Wage Order for Miscellaneous Industries and Occupations (“Miscellaneous Wage Order”), which governs overtime compensation in New York for most workers, home care workers are entitled to overtime pay at one and one-half time the State minimum wage rate, or $13.13 per hour.[iii] The Miscellaneous Wage Order provides:
An employer shall pay an employee for overtime at a wage rate of 1-1/2 times the employees regular rate in the manner and methods provided in and subject to the exemptions of sections 7 and 13 [of the FLSA] . . . . In addition, an employer shall pay employees subject to the exemptions of Section 13 [which includes the companionship services exemption of the FLSA] . . . overtime at a rate of 1-1/2 times the basic minimum hourly rate. (Emphasis added.)
Wage and Hour Lawsuits
Twenty-four hour shift employees are commonly referred to in the home care industry interchangeably as “live-in” or “sleep-in” workers. Each of these terms has a unique meaning, however, and they are not interchangeable. This difference in terminology has led to substantial confusion between decisions of the federal and state courts in New York and administrative interpretations by the NYS Department of Labor.
NYSDOL Opinion Letter
The NYSDOL, in a March 11, 2010 Opinion Letter (the “NYSDOL Opinion Letter”) contributed to the confusion over what term to use for 24-hour shift workers in New York, when it said:
[I]t is the opinion and policy of this Department that live-in employees must be paid not less than for thirteen hours per twenty-four hour period provided that they are afforded at least eight hours of sleep and actually receive five hours of uninterrupted sleep, and that they are afforded three hours for meals. If an aide does not receive five hours of uninterrupted sleep, the eight-hour sleep exclusion is not applicable and the employee must be paid for all eight hours. Similarly, if the aide is not actually afforded three work-free hours for meals, the three hour meal period exclusion is not applicable.
Counsel Opinion Letter, N.Y. Dep’t of Labor, RO-09-00169 Live-In Companions.
Note that the NYSDOL used the term “live-in” when enunciating this rule; a term that itself is not defined in the NYLL or its regulations. Under the NYLL, a home care worker who is directly employed by a client, household or family and who has no residence other than the client’s home is deemed a “residential” employee. By contrast, a home care worker who has her own residences is a “non-residential” employee. Although it is clearly lawful under NYLL to pay a “residential” employee 13 hours’ wages for a 24 hour shift (deducting 8 hours for qualified sleep-time and 3 hours for three hours for qualified mealtime), and only pay overtime after 44 hours worked in a workweek (instead of the usual 40 hours), there is no explicit statutory authority to apply this concept to a non-residential employee. Nonetheless, the NYSDOL Opinion Letter added “the Department applies the same test for determining the number of hours worked by all live-in employees,” irrespective of whether or not the employee resides in the home of the employer (i.e., is a “residential” or “non-residential” employee). In short, the NYSDOL conflated the terms “residential” and “non-residential” for purposes of determining the number of hours worked, and payable, to 24-hour shift employees, and, in so doing, also used the term “live-in” synonymously with the term “sleep-in” as it concerns 24-hour shift workers.
Federal and NYS Courts
Recently, two cases – one in a federal district court and the other in the New York Supreme Court, Kings County have addressed the interplay of the FLSA and NYLL in the context of 24-hour workers and have come to different conclusions on essentially the same questions concerning “hours worked” and overtime compensation for 24-hour shift workers.
In the first decision, Severin v. Project OHR, 10 Civ. 9696 (S.D.N.Y. June 20, 2012), 24-hour shift home care workers asserted class-wide claims for minimum wage and overtime violations under both the FLSA and the NYLL. The Court, after considering the sleep and meal time rules outlined in the 2010 NYSDOL Opinion Letter, applied these rules. The Court deferred to the NYSDOL’s opinion that their sleep and meal time rules applied whether the worker’s was a “residential” or “non-residential” employee under the NYLL; that is, to all home care workers assigned 24-hour shifts, whether or not the worker’s sole residency was the client’s home or the worker was employed by a third-party agency.
In the second decision, Andryeyeva v. New York Health Care Inc. d/b/a/ New York Home Attendant Agency et al., 2014 WL 4650233 (N.Y. Sup. Ct., Kings Cty. Sept. 16, 2014), the Court declined to follow the reasoning in Project OHR particularly as it concerned the NYSDOL Opinion Letter. In fact, the Court ruled that the NYSDOL Opinion Letter did not apply at all to “non-residential” employees, and totally rejected the NYSDOL policy that home care agencies can exclude from “hours worked” eight hours for sleep and three hours for meal time where the worker maintained a residence other than the client’s home. In short, the Court did not view the terms “live-in” and “sleep-in” synonymously, as did the NYSDOL and the Project OHR Court. Rather, it viewed the term “live-in” to be synonymous with “residential.”
According to this Kings County Court, because the workers “did not ‘reside’ in the home of their clients . . . the issue of the hours afforded for sleep or meals is irrelevant.” The Court concluded that “non-residential” home care workers must be paid for all 24 hours of a 24-hour shift to the extent they are required to remain in the client’s home.
Two additional decisions from another judge in the same court in Kings County have held the same. These decisions also required overtime pay if the worker worked more than 40 hours in a workweek. The Andryeyeva decision is presently on appeal.
Proactive Measures Employers Can Employ to Protect Themselves
The most significant issue for home care agencies employing home care workers on 24-hour shifts concern “hours worked” principles. Will the approach taken in the NYSDOL’s Opinion Letter, and followed in the Project OHR case, prevail, thereby permitting employers to satisfy applicable law if they pay the worker not less than for thirteen hours per twenty-four hour period, provided the workers are afforded at least eight hours of sleep and actually receive five hours of uninterrupted sleep, and that they are afforded and actually receive three duty-free hours for meals? Or, will the Andryeyeva approach to sleep and meal time ultimately prevail, and will home care employers in New York will be required to compensate their non-residential home care workers assigned to 24-hour shifts for all 24-hours?
Here are proactive measures employers can take to protect themselves:
- Develop better policies and procedures to manage work hours.
- Agencies need policies and procedures that determine how 24-hours shift cases will be assigned and how the hours worked on these shifts will be monitored.
- Use as much electronic technology as they can afford.
- Agencies need time-tracking software to require 24-hour workers to electronically record their work hours, sleep hours and duty-free hours and any interruption of those hours.
- Bolster the employer’s credibility and the weight to be given facts favorable to the employer in rebutting wage and hour claims.
- Implement “hours worked” procedures that require verbal notice by the worker to the agency if the worker is unable to receive five continuous hours of sleep and three duty free hours during a twenty-four hour shift, or any interruptions in sleep or duty free time, and a written report by the worker to the agency on receipt of the worker’s payroll check that does not take this into account. Agencies also need to obtain worker sign-offs on policies and procedures stating these rules.
- Warn workers that hours worked must be recorded accurately and that falsifying a time record is grounds for disciplinary action.5. Maintain complete and accurate wage and hour records for at least seven years.
- If using an outside payroll company, an agency must ensure the contract states that the payroll records are the agency’s property, the records will be maintained at a predetermined location in a readily accessible computer format for a minimum of seven years, the agency has the right at any time to inspect, audit, or request production of its records, and the records will be transferred to a new company immediately upon the agency’s request.
- Agencies must also practice what they preach, including disciplinary measures in their Codes of Conduct for violating recording and reporting rules. And, they must discipline violators consistently and uniformly.
[i] The FLSA companionship exemption is defined to include “an employee employed in domestic service employment to provide companionship services for individuals who (because of age or infirmity) are unable to care for themselves.” The exemption covers employees that provide “fellowship, care and protection” to such individuals, and has been interpreted to include engaging in “household work related to the care of the individual” (e.g., meal preparation, bed making, laundry, etc.), as well as other “general household work” provided such work is “incidental” to caring for the individual (i.e., does not exceed 20% of their total weekly hours worked). 29 C.F.R. § 552.6.
[ii] Although the NYLL excludes from its definition of “employee” “someone who lives in the home of an employer for the purpose of serving as a companion to a sick, convalescing or elderly person and whose principal duties do not include housekeeping.” (12 N.Y.C.R.R § 142-2.14(c)(1)(II). New York courts and the New York State Department of Labor (“NYSDOL”) have said that home care workers employed by home care agencies, by definition, fall outside of the NYLL companionship exclusion, because they do not “live in the home of an employer.” Therefore, all home care workers employed by third party agencies are “employees” under the NYLL entitled to be paid at least the state minimum wage for all hours worked.
[iii] Courts have interpreted this interplay between the FLSA and NYLL “companionship” provisions, to mean that home care workers, are, by virtue of the FLSA’s companionship services exemption, entitled under the Miscellaneous Wage Order to receive at least the State’s minimum wage rate, as well as overtime compensation at a rate of 1-1/2 times the state’s minimum wage rate. See Ballard v. Community Home Care Referral Servs., Inc. 264 A.D.2d 747 (1999).