Georgia Supreme Court Ruling May Spawn Back Pay Claims by Thousands of Home Care Workers
On November 23, 2015, the Supreme Court of Georgia held that countless home care workers are not exempt from the state’s minimum wage laws. The high court ruled unanimously that workers employed by businesses and other third parties to perform in-home personal care services for the elderly, infirm, or medically homebound are protected under Georgia’s minimum wage law.
The dispute centered on whether home care workers should be paid for the time they spend commuting between homes where they provide services. Plaintiff-employees argued that by not being paid for commute time they are not paid for all hours worked and their pay averages less than minimum wage. Defendants, Georgia-based Southern Home Care Services, Inc. and its Kentucky-based parent company, Res-Care, Inc., countered that home care workers are exempt from both federal and state minimum wage laws and must only be paid for the time spent in homes providing care.
The Georgia Supreme Court sided with the Plaintiff-employees. This decision opens the door for thousands of in-home care workers statewide to seek back pay and future wages for the time they spend traveling between job assignments.
This lawsuit began in state court and has tethered between federal and state court for eight years. Last spring, a U.S. District Court Judge asked the Georgia Supreme Court two questions:
1) Whether an employee who is exempted from collecting a federal minimum wage ($7.25) under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is also barred from receiving state minimum wage ($5.15) under the Georgia Minimum Wage Law (GMWL); and
2) Whether an individual who provides in-home personal support services is a “domestic employee” and therefore exempt from the GMWL.
The high court answered “no” to both questions. First, the court held that Georgia law does provide protection for employees who are exempted from (or not covered by) the federal minimum wage provisions, especially “like the employees in this case … who thus could benefit from a state minimum wage, albeit one lower than the federal one.” Next, the court rejected the Defendants’ argument that the home care workers fit into the “domestic employee” exception under state law, finding that these workers do not provide domestic services in the homes of the individuals they work for and instead provide services in homes of their employers’ clients.
Going further, the decision opined that companies with employees and clients in multiple states, like Res-Care and Southern Home Care Services, are subject to the federal wage-and-hour laws to include the FLSA. The court pointed to new federal regulations that rescinded the minimum wage exemption for in-home care that included dressing, toileting, and other similar activities and “expressly prevent third-party employers of care workers, including home care agencies like the employers here, from claiming the companionship services exemption.” Translation: Home Care companies state and nationwide should be reviewing their pay practices immediately.
The GMWL was established in 1970 and covers most employers (with very limited exceptions). The state’s minimum wage law, however, specifically excludes employers who are subject to Congress-established minimum wage provisions so long as employees of federally-regulated employers receive a higher minimum wage than required by the GMWL. Only five states – Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee – have not adopted a state minimum wage. Additionally, 29 states and D.C. currently have minimum wages above the federal minimum wage.
Employers must be diligent about complying with both federal and state wage-and-hour laws. Further, employers should routinely consult their employment counsel regarding ever-changing regulations that may affect their current payroll practices.
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