Health care company seeks Pa. wage-law exemption

AP News
Posted: Dec 01, 2009 4:06 PM

A health care company told Pennsylvania's highest court Tuesday the company should not be bound by the state's minimum-wage and overtime laws in compensating employees who provide companionship and other non-medical services to elderly and other homebound people.

Thomas Collins, representing New Jersey-based Bayada Nurses Inc., told the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that Bayada should be entitled to a "domestic services" exemption because the company and its clients jointly employ home-health aides.

"The homeowner always has the right to decide" which aides Bayada sends to the residence, he told the justices.

Bayada had sued the state Labor Department in state Commonwealth Court over a 32-year-old regulation that limits such exemptions to people who hire others to work in their homes.

In a 4-3 ruling in which the dissenters said the lawsuit was premature, the lower court's majority embraced the department's position that Bayada does not qualify.

"Bayada is the employer of these employees. The homeowner is not," department lawyer Kathryn McDermott Speaks said Tuesday.

Collins said that Bayada already pays home-health aides more than the $7.25-an-hour minimum wage because of competitive pressures and that the real issue is the requirement that employees get time and a half when they work more than 40 hours a week.

Collins contended that the state regulation conflicts with a "clear exemption" from federal wage laws.

Meanwhile, in another part of the Capitol, two dozen home-care workers and clients spoke about problems they blamed on inadequate pay. The news conference was organized by SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, which bills itself as the state's largest and fastest-growing health-care union, with more than 20,000 members.

"We cannot feed our families on less than minimum wage," said Natasha Maye of Philadelphia, a mother of four who said she puts in 45 to 60 hours a week providing home care. "We need and we deserve better wages."

Jeanette Howells of Bethlehem, who is blind and uses a wheelchair, said she has encountered some home-care aides who mistreated her. One stole her birth certificate, she said.

"I know I was not treated with respect because they were not treated with respect themselves," said Howells, who lives in an independent living center.

Bayada, which operates in 19 states, employs a wide range of people, including nurses and other professionals. Of the 2,800 people Bayada employed in Pennsylvania in the week that ended Nov. 22, 903 were home-health aides who would be affected by the outcome of the court case, said Rick Buck, a company spokesman.

In April, Bayada agreed to pay $2.3 million to settle a class-action suit that alleged violations of Pennsylvania's minimum-wage law, but admitted no wrongdoing.

"We did this so our home-health aides could receive their additional compensation, instead of having the suit tied up for years in court," the company said in a statement issued after Tuesday's hearing.