A federal judge Wednesday decided to undo a new U.S. Labor Department rule that would have meant higher wages for many home healthcare workers.
Industry leaders had hoped for such a ruling, saying forcing them to pay workers more could have destabilized the industry and made home healthcare unaffordable for patients. Meanwhile, a workers' group, the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, decried the decision, saying, “America's 2 million home care workers should not have to wait any longer for fair pay.”
“Home care workers should also be able to live with dignity—which includes having the security of protection under the same basic labor laws that apply to most workers across the nation,” according to a statement from the Institute.
But Phil Bongiorno, executive director of the Home Care Association of America, on Wednesday called the decision in a statement, “a clear victory for clients of home care providers, including seniors and individuals with disabilities, who depend on these essential services to remain independent.”
Home healthcare companions who provide “fellowship, care and protection” to the elderly or disabled have been exempt from minimum wage and overtime pay protection. The new Labor Department rule, however, would have significantly narrowed the definition of companions to those who spend no more than 20% of their time providing actual care, such as feeding and bathing.
That new rule would likely have meant wage and overtime pay protections for a majority of home healthcare workers. The rule was set to take effect Jan. 1.
The National Association for Home Care & Hospice, the Home Care Association of America and the International Franchise Association sued the government in June over the rule, saying it would lead to a dearth of quality, affordable care for seniors. The associations argued in court filings that, “Congress enacted the companionship exemption in order (to) keep home-care costs as affordable as possible for the elderly and infirm and their families and to avoid institutionalization.”
In his opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon wrote that Congress' exemption of many home healthcare workers from minimum wage and overtime pay protections was meant to keep home healthcare affordable.
The judge also addressed what he said was a balance-of-power issue in the case.
“While the Department of Labor's concern about the wages of home care providers is understandable, Congress is the appropriate forum in which to debate and weigh the competing financial interests in this very complex issue affecting so many families,” Leon wrote. “Redefining a 40-year-old exemption out of existence may be satisfyingly efficient to the Department of Labor, but it strikes at the heart of the balance of power our Founding Fathers intended to rest in the hands of those who must face the electorate on a regular basis.”
The Department of Labor has said in earlier statements that it stands by its rule and that extending minimum wage and overtime pay protections to most home healthcare workers is the right thing to do.
Leon also ruled in December against a different part of the rule that would have required companionship workers employed by third parties, such as home healthcare companies, to no longer be exempt from minimum wage and overtime laws.
The Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute said in a statement Wednesday that it expects the case will be appealed.
Follow Lisa Schencker on Twitter: @lschencker