Justices overturn wage-law ruling

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The nation's growing cadre of home health care aides is not entitled to minimum wages or overtime pay under federal law, even if they work for private employers, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The 9-0 decision, which keeps in place a long-standing rule that denies minimum wages and overtime pay to those who provide "companionship services" at home, could trigger a move in Congress to amend the law.

With an estimated 1 million workers now assisting the elderly and the disabled in their homes, unions and civil rights groups had urged the justices to scrap this rule because they say it deprives many of the nation's lowest-paid workers of a living wage. They said a large percentage of these aides are women and minorities who often work all-night shifts. Yet, under federal labor law, they are viewed the same as part-time baby sitters.

A U.S. appeals court in New York had ruled that the minimum-wage law applied to those home-care workers who are employed by a private company or a public agency. If it had been upheld, the decision would have given overtime pay and minimum wages to the vast majority of the nation's home-care workers, since most are employees of companies.

But the Supreme Court overturned the decision yesterday and said, in essence, it is up to Congress or the Labor Department to change the Fair Labor Standards Act. First passed by Congress in 1938, the law is enforced through rules issued by the Labor Department.

The decision is "another blow to struggling, low-wage women," said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center. It means "profit-making companies can legally choose to pay home-care workers deplorably low wages or deny them just compensation for overtime."

The federal minimum wage is $5.15 per hour; it will increase to $5.85 on July 24. Under a recently enacted measure, it will rise gradually to $7.25 per hour in July of 2009. If they work more than eight hours in a day, workers receive one-and-a-half times their pay rate for additional hours.

The impact of the ruling will vary by state, since many have their own minimum wage and overtime laws. The Service Employees International Union sued to challenge the exemption to minimum wages on behalf of Evelyn Coke, a 73-year old retiree who worked for more than 20 years in the homes of elderly patients. She was employed by Long Island Care at Home Ltd., a private company that provided home-care aides for elderly persons.

Her suit was opposed by the city of New York and the home-care industry on the grounds that it would drive up the costs of providing care for the poor and the elderly. New York City said a ruling in Coke's favor would add $300 million a year to the cost of its Medicaid program, mostly because of the high cost of overtime.

The Supreme Court's opinion in Coke v. Long Island Care at Home avoids the broad issue of fair wages for home-care workers. Instead, it focuses narrowly on whether the Labor Department's regulations are a reasonable interpretation of what Congress intended. In 1974, Congress expanded the reach of the minimum wage law, but said again those in "domestic service employment" were not covered.

Gerald Hudson, executive vice president of the Service Employees union, said the ruling will "hurt efforts to provide America's growing senior population and people with disabilities with the quality, reliable in-home care they will need to live independently."

But he noted the ruling leaves it for "a new administration" to drop the exemption for home-care employees or for Congress to amend the law.

In other actions yesterday, the court:

Strengthened the federal Superfund law by ruling that those who undertake environmental cleanups on their own can sue other polluters and force them to pay part of the cost. Bush administration lawyers had opposed such suits.

Decided against imposing a new requirement on employer pension plans. The justices said companies do not have a duty to consider an invitation to merge their pension plans as an alternative to terminating them.

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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