OSHA’s Virus Protection Program Could Put Home Health Agencies Under the Microscope

In response to an executive order from President Joe Biden, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has launched a national emphasis program aimed at protecting workers from COVID-19 while on the job.

OSHA, part of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), is responsible for assuring “safe and healthy working conditions” for most workers in the U.S..

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Dept of Labor Plans to Rescind Rules on Independent Contractors, Joint Employer Relationships

The U.S. Department of Labor today announced plans to rescind two final rules under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The first Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposes the withdrawal of the Independent Contractor Final Rule issued by the department on issued on Jan. 7, 2021, for several reasons. They include the following:

  • The rule adopted a new “economic reality” test to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor under the FLSA.
  • Courts and the department have not used the new economic reality test, and FLSA text or longstanding case law does not support the test.
  • The rule would narrow or minimize other factors considered by courts traditionally; making the economic test less likely to establish that a worker is an employee under the FLSA.

Among its provisions, the FLSA requires covered employers to pay employees at least the federal minimum wage for every hour worked and overtime premium pay of at least one and one-half times their regular rate of pay for every hour worked over 40 in a workweek. An independent contractor has no FLSA protections.

The second Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeks to rescind a current regulation on joint employer relationships under the Fair Labor Standards Act, published in the Federal Register and which took effect on March 16, 2020. In February 2020, 17 states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against the department, arguing that the Joint Employer Rule violated the Administrative Procedure Act. The court vacated the majority of the Joint Employer Rule on Sept. 8, 2020, stating that the rule was contrary to the FLSA and was “arbitrary and capricious” due to its failure to explain why the department had deviated from all prior guidance or consider the effect of the rule on workers.

The department invites comments from the public on both proposed rules at www.regulations.gov. The comment periods end on April 12, 2021.

Anyone who submits a comment (including duplicate comments) should understand and expect that the comment, including any personal information provided, will become a matter of public record. The division will post comments without change at www.regulations.gov and include any personal information provided. The division posts comments gathered and submitted by a third-party organization as a group, using a single document ID number at the site.

More information about the proposed rules is available at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/flsa/2021-independent-contractor and at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/flsa/2020-joint-employment.

Littler “Ask the Experts”: Payroll Audit Independent Determination Program

Through NAHC’s partnership with Littler Mendelson P.C Labor & Employment Law Solutions, we are excited to share the “Ask the Experts” Article. Each week, we will feature a new question, from you our members, related to workplace issues and topics that will be answered from our experts and partners at Littler.

This week’s question comes from our private duty home care advisory board members and concerns the recent announcement about the Department of Labor’s PAID program.

Question: What does it mean that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has ended its Payroll Audit Independent Determination (PAID) program last Friday (January 29, 2021)?

Answer by Will Vail of Littler Mendelson

The PAID program began in March 2018 and allowed employers an alternative method to rectify overtime and minimum wage violations of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) without the worry of an extended statute of limitations, penalties, and threat of private litigation or attorneys’ fees.  The Wage Hour Division repeatedly touted the program’s success (the most recent numbers – from this past summer – show that it collected more than $7 Million in wages for 11,000 workers).  In its press release announcing the end of the program, however, the DOL indicated that the resources and outreach provided by the Wage and Hour Division to employers are sufficient to help employers comply with the FLSA “without relieving them of their legal obligations.”

Under the PAID program, employers were able to self-report a wage violation, submit a calculation of back wages to the DOL, and enter into an agreement to pay 100% of back wages owed over a two-year period. In turn, the DOL would supervise and approve the settlement permitting employees to issue a valid release of the claim, limited to the reported issue. The DOL agreed not to seek a third year of back wages, liquidated damages, or civil money penalties, and kept the identity of reporting employers confidential, subject to FOIA requests. As an additional incentive for employers to participate in the PAID program, the DOL agreed not to investigate the underlying merits of the issue that the employer self-reported; instead, its review was limited to the back wage calculations prepared by the employer for accuracy.

Without the self-reporting PAID program, the only two options available to release FLSA claims are through a court-approved settlement or as a result of a DOL-initiated investigation.  The PAID program did not release any state law claims, which was why some employers did not avail themselves of it, but the program did allow for significant relief for employers to correct issues without the threat of additional litigation or negative publicity.

Even without the added benefits of the PAID program, employers should continue to be proactive to audit pay records and correct potential wage issues if identified.  This is particularly true for the at-home care industry (home health, hospice and home care).  Even under the previous administration, there was substantial litigation against companies in this industry.

Big picture, this likely is an example of the new administration’s stance on employment matters generally.  It is likely going to take a stricter enforcement posture with companies.  Indeed, the new administration has already added more than a dozen new political appointees to the DOL, including in the Solicitor’s office (the part of the DOL that litigates against employers).

Do you have a question for our experts at Littler?

As part of our commitment to you as our members we want to make sure to support you with the information and leadership expertise you need to provide quality private duty home care and services.

If you have a question for our experts at Littler, please feel free to send your question to erb@nahc.org and we will work to get your question answered as quickly as possible and then featured in an upcoming Ask the Experts section of the Private Duty Source.

About Littler

At Littler, we understand that workplace issues can’t wait. With access to more than 1,500 employment attorneys in over 80 offices around the world, our clients don’t have to. We aim to go beyond best practices, creating solutions that help clients navigate a complex business world. With deep experience and resources that are local, everywhere, we are fully focused on your business. With a diverse team of the brightest minds, we foster a culture that celebrates original thinking. And with powerful proprietary technology, we disrupt the status quo – delivering groundbreaking innovation that prepares employers not just for what’s happening today, but for what’s likely to happen tomorrow. For over 75 years, our firm has harnessed these strengths to offer fresh perspectives on each matter we advise, litigate, mediate, and negotiate. Because at Littler, we’re fueled by ingenuity and inspired by you.

About Will Vail, Special Council

William Vail brings a wealth of private practice and in-house experience to every matter he handles. For nearly seven years, he was lead employment counsel two separate divisions of largest post-acute health care provider in the nation (the home health, hospice and community care division and nursing center division). He later was lead employment and litigation counsel for the largest home health and hospice provider in the nation following a corporate reorganization. In addition to a wide variety of employment issues, Will is familiar with False Claims Act, professional liability and general liability matters related to healthcare operations.

Will is a core member of Littler’s healthcare practice group. He has experience litigating across the United States, providing advice and counsel to both legal and non-legal stakeholders, performing due diligence related to mergers and acquisitions, helping start-ups begin operations in a compliant method, winding down operations, conducting management training, and assisting in the integration of new entities into going concerns.

William Vail began his legal career in 2004 as a law clerk to a federal judge sitting in the Western District of Virginia. He then transitioned to private practice in Louisville, Kentucky, for a regional full-service firm and later a national labor and employment boutique firm. At Littler, Will is based in Louisville as well as Atlanta.

*Not licensed to practice law in Georgia

Labor Dept. Issues Stronger Workplace Guidance on Coronavirus

  • New OSHA guidance seeks to mitigate, prevent viral spread in the workplace

The U.S. Department of Labor announced today that its Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued stronger worker safety guidance to help employers and workers implement a coronavirus protection program and better identify risks which could lead to exposure and contraction. Last week, President Biden directed OSHA to release clear guidance for employers to help keep workers safe from COVID-19 exposure.

Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace” provides updated guidance and recommendations, and outlines existing safety and health standards. OSHA is providing the recommendations to assist employers in providing a safe and healthful workplace.

“More than 400,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and millions of people are out of work as a result of this crisis. Employers and workers can help our nation fight and overcome this deadly pandemic by committing themselves to making their workplaces as safe as possible,” said Senior Counselor to the Secretary of Labor M. Patricia Smith. “The recommendations in OSHA’s updated guidance will help us defeat the virus, strengthen our economy and bring an end to the staggering human and economic toll that the coronavirus has taken on our nation.”

Implementing a coronavirus protection program is the most effective way to reduce the spread of the virus. The guidance announced today recommends several essential elements in a prevention program:

  • Conduct a hazard assessment.
  • Identify control measures to limit the spread of the virus.
  • Adopt policies for employee absences that don’t punish workers as a way to encourage potentially infected workers to remain home.
  • Ensure that coronavirus policies and procedures are communicated to both English and non-English speaking workers.
  • Implement protections from retaliation for workers who raise coronavirus-related concerns.

“OSHA is updating its guidance to reduce the risk of transmission of the coronavirus and improve worker protections so businesses can operate safely and employees can stay safe and working,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Jim Frederick.

The guidance details key measures for limiting coronavirus’s spread, including ensuring infected or potentially infected people are not in the workplace, implementing and following physical distancing protocols and using surgical masks or cloth face coverings. It also provides guidance on use of personal protective equipment, improving ventilation, good hygiene and routine cleaning.

OSHA will update today’s guidance as developments in science, best practices and standards warrant.

This guidance is not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations. It contains recommendations as well as descriptions of existing mandatory safety and health standards. The recommendations are advisory in nature, informational in content and are intended to assist employers in recognizing and abating hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm as part of their obligation to provide a safe and healthful workplace.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. OSHA’s role is to help ensure these conditions for America’s working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, education and assistance. Learn more about OSHA.

Labor Dept. Issues Stronger Workplace Guidance on Coronavirus

New OSHA guidance seeks to mitigate, prevent viral spread in the workplace The U.S. Department of Labor announced today that its Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued stronger worker safety guidance to help employers and workers implement a coronavirus protection program and better identify risks which could lead to exposure and contraction. Last week,…

Dept of Labor Announces Annual Adjustments to OSHA Civil Penalties

The U.S. Department of Labor has announced adjustments to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) civil penalty amounts based on cost-of-living adjustments for 2021.

In 2015, Congress passed the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act to advance the effectiveness of civil monetary penalties and to maintain their deterrent effect. Under the Act, agencies are required to publish “catch-up” rules that adjust the level of civil monetary penalties, and make subsequent annual adjustments for inflation no later than January 15 of each year.

OSHA’s maximum penalties for serious and other-than-serious violations will increase from $13,494 per violation to $13,653 per violation. The maximum penalty for willful or repeated violations will increase from $134,937 per violation to $136,532 per violation.

Visit the OSHA Penalties page for more information. The Department of Labor Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Annual Adjustments for 2021 final rule is effective January 15, 2021, and the increased penalty levels apply to any penalties assessed after January 15, 2021.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. OSHA’s role is to help ensure these conditions for America’s working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, education and assistance. For more information, visit www.osha.gov.

Writing off Expenses Paid for with PPP Money & a New DoL Decision

By Littler Mendelson

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 contains an important aspect of that legislation that many of you have been clamoring for: companies now may write off expenses paid for with PPP money.  This change was buried in section 276(a) of the Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Nonprofits and Venues Act (which is part of the stimulus bill). As you likely know, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) refused to adopt this position absent express language to this effect in the statute. There was bipartisan support for this new language, but it never seemed to make it into any of the draft stimulus bills. Further cementing this victory, the IRS has announced that an official change in its position on this issue.  We know this is a welcome, albeit belated, result.

Also in the news and relevant to this industry is the DOL’s recent action taken to finalize the independent contractor rule.  This rule impacts traditional registries and the online virtual marketplace platforms that facilitate caregiving services as it provides a new paradigm for analyzing whether a caregiver is truly an independent contractor or employee (focusing on two key factors – control and opportunity for profit or loss – instead of weighing seven factors).  The rule is supposed to go into effect March 8, 2021, but President Joseph Biden has announced his intent to issue a memorandum on his first day in office freezing the effective date of any legislation that is not yet in effect. He also has expressed an interest in derailing the rule entirely. If the rule were to become effective, the biggest question would be its impact on the Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2018-4, which provided guidance on when registries are employers under federal wage and hour law. This is because the new rule would replace any inconsistent previous interpretation of independent contractor status.  So stay tuned for more developments on this front!

Home Care Industry Legal Update: Vaccines, Live-in Caregivers & More

Wondering about the latest on the COVID-19 vaccines and how the home care industry is responding, how the new administration may impact the industry, and what you can do to take advantage of the Opinion Letter the U.S. Department of Labor recently issued on live-in caregivers? You’re in luck! A new webinar by Littler Mendelson, Private Duty Home Care at NAHC and HCAOA will provide you with the insight and answers you need.

We are hosting an industry webinar covering all of these topics Friday, January 22, 2021 from 12:00 to 2:00 p.m. EST. We hope you can make it.

During the webinar, we will discuss:

  • The currently authorized vaccines
  • Home care’s place in line in the states
  • The EEOC’s views on the vaccines
  • How home care agencies are responding to the new vaccines
  • Whether a home care agency could and/or should make vaccination mandatory for employees
  • Issues with monetary incentives for employees to get vaccinated
  • Messaging to employees about the vaccine
  • Responding to questions about the vaccination status of employees from clients/patients
  • Vaccine access issues
  • What to expect from the DOL under the Biden administration
  • How you can use the new Opinion Letter to address compensation issues with your live-in and extended shift caregivers

These webinars are intended to provide regular legal updates to assist home health and home care providers trying to navigate through the complex and seemingly ever-changing legal landscape brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

REGISTER!

Dept of Labor Announces Annual Adjustments to OSHA Civil Penalties

The U.S. Department of Labor has announced adjustments to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) civil penalty amounts based on cost-of-living adjustments for 2021. In 2015, Congress passed the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act to advance the effectiveness of civil monetary penalties and to maintain their deterrent effect. Under the Act, agencies…

Dept of Labor Issues Favorable Live-In Home Care Worker Opinion

By Littler Mendelson

In an excellent development for the home care industry, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued an Opinion Letter permitting agencies to utilize consistent “shift rates” that are inclusive of a pre-payment of overtime when agencies compensate caregivers providing live-in services and extended shift services of 24 hours or more. Littler Mendelson requested this opinion on behalf of the industry to clarify the rules around this practice with the hope of eliminating much of the litigation that has resulted due to the misunderstanding caregivers often have with the structure of their pay for live-in and extended shift work under this type of program.

A “live-in” caregiver, under federal law, is a caregiver who works “extended periods” in the client’s home. This could be someone whose sole residence is the client’s home, or it could be someone who spends as little as five consecutive days or nights per week in the home (such as working Monday at 7 AM to Friday at 7 PM). An “extended shift” caregiver is at the client’s home for over 24 hours, but something less than the time required to be considered a live-in. This distinction is most important for determining how many hours can be potentially excluded from pay. An extended shift caregiver may have up to eight hours of sleep and potentially three hours of meals excluded from pay for each 24 hours of work (depending on state law). It is possible for live-in caregivers to have even more downtime excluded when they are free from work without losing the ability to deduct additional time for bona fide sleeping time.

Agencies frequently discuss compensation for such shifts on a “per-shift” basis because this is generally how live-in and extended shift caregivers evaluate the financial value of the assignment (rather than a specific hourly rate). Some agencies have found they need to quote pay rates in this way to encourage caregivers to take specific assignments. The Opinion Letter is helpful in establishing that agencies are permitted to blend overtime into each shift even before it is earned within the workweek to communicate the average shift rate based on the total anticipated hours worked.  However, there are specific rules that must be followed to fully take advantage of this Opinion Letter.

Major complications can arise when a caregiver is without a clear understanding of the pay structure when working live-in and extended shifts. Often caregivers think that they will be paid a consistent amount per shift regardless of the number of hours they work.  This is not a shift rate but an improper day rate.  This pay method can violate the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Under the FLSA, non-exempt employees (such as caregivers employed by home care agencies) must be paid at least the minimum wage for all hours worked and an overtime rate of at least 1.5 times their regular rate for hours worked over 40 in a workweek (we are putting aside more restrictive state laws, such as those in California and Colorado, which have additional rules).  Non-exempt caregivers paid on day rates that do not adjust based on actual hours worked may have a claim for overtime even if the day rate is high enough to cover minimum wage and overtime.  This is because non-exempt employees must record actual time worked and be paid the appropriate amount of overtime earned as a result of that work.

To avoid confusion between an adjustable shift rate versus an inflexible day rate, an agency MUST properly explain the shift rate pay method in a written agreement signed by the caregiver. The arrangement should also include the hourly rate of pay, expected hours of work each shift, and anticipated number of shifts so that it is clear how the caregiver is being paid.  The agreement should expressly state that the agency is paying advanced overtime as an administrative convenience rather than as a result of a legal entitlement.  The caregiver still needs to track her actual hours of work each week so that adjustments can be made for hours worked beyond the anticipated schedule at the appropriate rate. It is imperative that an agency not just track the start and end of each workday but also track any other periods when a caregiver isn’t supposed to be on-the-clock. Similarly, the agency needs a method to track any interruptions when the employee is not supposed to be working during meal or sleep periods but is called to work.

The DOL’s Opinion Letter paves the way for agencies to simplify live-in compensation practices with the protection of the good faith defenses available under federal law to the extent the program is set up correctly.  Agencies should no longer be wary of providing clients with live-in and extended shift services. A properly crafted program that complies with state and federal law and incorporates the appropriate time tracking measures will not significantly change the agencies risk profile.  So please get out there and help those seniors!