On Monday, June 11, 2007, the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case of Long Island Care at Home, Ltd. v. Coke, No. 06-593. The unanimous decision overturned the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and affirmed a Department of Labor regulation exempting from the Fair Labor Standards Act minimum wage and overtime requirements home health care companions employed by third-party employers.
In the 1974 amendments to the FLSA, Congress exempted from coverage "any employee employed in domestic service employment to provide companionship services for individuals who (because of age or infirmity) are unable to care for themselves." 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(15). The controversy in Long Island Care at Home resulted from the conflict between two inconsistent Department of Labor regulations. The first states that "domestic service employment" refers to "services of a household nature performed by an employee in or about a private home (permanent or temporary) of the person by whom he or she is employed." 29 C.F.R. § 552.3. The second regulation, captioned "third party employment," states that "[e]mployees who are engaged in providing companionship services … and who are employed by an employer or agency other than the family or household using their services, are exempt from the Act's minimum wage and overtime pay requirements. …" 29 C.F.R. § 552.109(a).
Writing for the court, Justice Breyer held that both regulations properly were entitled to deference. The court relied upon an advisory memorandum issued by the DOL, holding that the DOL's interpretation of its own regulations was controlling unless that interpretation were plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulations being interpreted. The court further appeared persuaded by the reasoning set forth in the DOL's advisory memorandum, including the conclusion that a contrary ruling would result in adverse consequences, such as including within the FLSA's coverage employees hired by patients' children living in different households.
Interestingly, at oral argument, the traditionally liberal-leaning members of the court appeared more concerned with the potential for elderly patients being left without adequate care than with home health care workers being excluded from the coverage of the FLSA. Although the Long Island Care at Home decision may be read as a break from the court's usually expansive interpretation of the FLSA, the outcome ultimately hinged on the court accepting the DOL's interpretation of its own regulations and is better read as reaffirming the depth of the court's administrative deference.
Of course, it should be kept in mind that many states do not exempt companions from receiving overtime and state law will control in those circumstances. An issue, in fact, currently exists in Pennsylvania regarding the extent to which overtime should be paid to companions. What, if any, effect the Supreme Court's decision will have in Pennsylvania's interpretation of its companion exemption remains to be seen.