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9th Cir.: LA County Was Joint Employer of Home Healthcare Workers, Liable Under the FLSA

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Ray v. Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services

In a recent published opinion, the Ninth Circuit held that Los Angeles County is a joint employer of state-provided home health care aides and is liable for alleged failures to pay those aides sufficient overtime wages, the Ninth Circuit held Friday. The opinion partially reversed the lower court’s which held that the County was not jointly for the wage violations alleged.

The case arose from California’s In-Home Supportive Services program, a publicly-funded initiative under which the state and counties pay the wages of certain in-home care providers who assist low-income elderly, blind and disabled residents. In 2017, IHSS provider Trina Ray sued both the California Department of Social Services and the LA County Department of Public Social Services, alleging that the governments jointly employed her and failed to pay time and a half overtime premiums.

The district court granted LA County summary judgment, largely relying on the fact that the county had no hand in issuing paychecks to IHSS workers. Rejecting the reasoning of the lower court, the Ninth Circuit held that the county still had sufficient economic control over the program, noting that counties provide 35% of the program’s budget, and counties are able to negotiate for higher-than-minimum wages for home care workers among other things.

Thus, the panel held that counties were joint employers alongside the state under existing Ninth Circuit precedent, reasoning.

However, the panel split on whether the state-level centralization of the IHSS program’s payroll system meant that the county’s FLSA violations were willful. The majority concluded that the state’s ultimate control of pay processes meant counties had no ability to provide overtime pay without authorization.

Writing in partial dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon disagreed with the majority’s finding that the county’s FLSA violations were in good faith. Regardless of whether the county or state ordinarily handled payroll, Judge Berzon said that joint employers were individually and jointly responsible for ensuring compliance with the FLSA under Bonnette, prior Ninth Circuit precedent.

“Allowing joint employers to avoid liability for violations of the FLSA by showing they ordinarily did not perform a particular employer function would risk undermining the statute’s remedial purposes,” Judge Berzon said.

It would appear that the dissent is correct in that FLSA, does not permit a finding of “good faith” simply in reliance on or because a joint employer was more actively responsible for the unpaid wages. Rather, well-settled law requires an employer to demonstrate affirmative steps that it undertook to ascertain and comply with the FLSA’s requirements, which appear to be lacking here.

Click Ray v. Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services to read the entire Opinion.

Click Nurse Wages to learn more about wage and hour rights of home health aides (HHAs), certified nurse assistants (CNAs), licensed nurse practitioners (LPNs) and registered nurses (RNs).

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