Nearly 2 million home health care workers across the country, including 55,000 in Massachusetts, are eligible for federal minimum wage and overtime protections, according to a ruling Friday by a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C.
The ruling revives a Department of Labor regulation that was set to go into effect Jan. 1 granting home care workers the right to be paid minimum wage and earn time and a half for hours worked above 40 a week. A federal judge rejected the Labor Department rules earlier this year, saying the agency exceeded its authority. Friday’s ruling overturned that decision.
Home care workers had previously been exempt from these workplace protections under a “companionship services” clause that covers tasks performed for elderly or disabled clients such as housework, meal preparation, and other personal services.
In the unanimous appeals court decision, a judge cited the “dramatic transformation” of the home care industry, which has shifted from a system where families directly hired aides, to one where most are hired through large agencies. Elderly clients are also staying in their homes longer, requiring aides to offer more advanced medical care.
In Massachusetts, 35,000 home care workers employed through the MassHealth personal care attendant program are now eligible for overtime for the first time. Many of these workers paid through MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program, are part time or work less than 40 hours a week, but at least 5,000 work overtime hours that were previously paid at their regular rate.
The 20,000 Massachusetts home care workers who work for private agencies are already covered by state laws guaranteeing overtime pay.
The new federal minimum wage protection, requiring workers to be paid at least $7.25 an hour will have no impact on Massachusetts home care workers because they already make at least $9 under state law.
Lobbyists for the $84 billion home health care industry have argued that the new rules would make it difficult for families to afford home care and could reduce caregivers’ pay if companies limit their shifts to avoid paying overtime.
Rosario Cabrera, 31, a home health care worker in New Bedford, estimates that she worked nearly 800 hours of overtime over a three-year period. If she had been paid overtime, she would have earned another $5,300 — money she said she could use to pay down her debt, or put toward a down payment on a house.
Cabrera, who cares for two women in wheelchairs, is glad she and her fellow personal care attendants will finally be considered equal to other workers. And she took issue with the fact that her role had been considered that of a companion, noting that she helps her clients with medications and nutrition, allowing them to be independent and go out into the community.
“A dog is a companion,” she said. “We’re not companions. We don’t entertain people. We’re not clowns. We actually work.”
Rebecca Gutman, vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 1199, which represents MassHealth home care workers, called the court decision “part of a tapestry of efforts to bring dignity to the home care workforce.” In Massachusetts, personal care attendants also recently won an agreement to earn a $15-an-hour starting wage, the first state to impose that threshold for home care workers.