National Business

Caregivers for disabled worked 87 hours a week for $4 an hour, feds say

A chain of Orange County, Calif., residential care homes for the disabled paid their workers as little as $4 an hour and made them work more than 87 hours a week, according to a federal lawsuit.

In a settlement announced Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Labor said the facilities in Mission Viejo and Lake Forest were assessed $1.1 million in back wages and penalties for 66 workers after falsifying records and intimidating workers.

The three-year court case brought by federal officials also charged Lilibeth and Gerardo Ortiz, owners of the homes, with retaliation against live-in caregivers and licensed vocational nurses for filing complaints, serving them with eviction notices. Attorneys for the couple "coerced employees into signing false or misleading statements about their working conditions," the lawsuit said.

"In addition to subjecting employees to oppressive working conditions, the defendants attempted to silence workers and prevent them from exercising their rights," said Janet Herold, the labor department's regional solicitor, in a statement. She praised "brave employees who come forward ... notwithstanding the defendants' concerted efforts at intimidation."

In an interview, Lilibeth Ortiz said she had paid the settlement but that the Labor Department's charges "are full of lies."

"This abuse never happened," Ortiz said. "And our workers are still with us." She said the 87 hours cited by federal officials counted hours that her live-in employees were "showering, cooking for themselves or reading magazines, but they think they are supposed to be paid."

The four homes cited include Margaret's Home, Recodo Lane Home and Quintana Home in Mission Viejo and Robin Dale Home in Lake Forest.

Residential-care facilities, which house a maximum of six disabled or elderly patients, are the subject of growing government crackdowns among immigrant-heavy industries, along with construction sites, carwashes and janitorial companies. Since January 2016, U.S. labor officials have assessed $3 million in back wages owed to more than 1,500 California workers in the residential-care home industry.

California officials have also been aggressive. Since 2014, the Labor Commissioner's Office has issued citations totaling more than $12.8 million to residential-care facilities. In one case last year, a San Fernando Valley chain of six Alzheimer's and dementia facilities, Adat Shalom Board & Care, was assessed $7.1 million for allegedly paying 149 workers less than $3 an hour.

The conditions in the federal case against the Orange County homes "are not uncommon," said California Labor Secretary Julie Su, citing "round-the-clock shifts with pay set at flat rates that do not account for actual hours worked, resulting in egregious violations of minimum wage, overtime and meal and rest break standards."

A 2017 study by San Francisco's Golden Gate University School of Law noted that California has six times more residential care facilities than nursing homes and they often admit residents with acute medical needs. However, the study said, there is no requirement for skilled staffing ratios and "caregivers often work around the clock, without proper pay, adequate sleeping facilities or sufficient sleep. Frequently, small (facilities) keep inaccurate or false records of hours worked. Misclassification of workers as independent contractors and retaliation is prevalent."

Many workers in the industry are Filipino immigrants, according to experts, as the Ortiz caregivers were. "Often, the workers are women of color, who are not expected to know their rights, have access to legal services, or to speak up," Su said. "Caregiving, including through residential-care facilities, will be a growth industry, given our aging population."

At the Ortiz facilities, workers tended to patients with intellectual disabilities and cerebral palsy. They administered medication, changed diapers, fed them and brushed their teeth at "all hours of the day and night," according to court documents. The documents alleged workers were paid a flat rate of $750 a week from 2016 to 2019.

Ortiz said the $750 was "net pay," her employees may have worked just six to eight hours of unpaid overtime weekly, "and we have corrected everything." She said she did not ask workers to file false statements, but only to meet with her attorney. She did not threaten to evict them, she said, but suggested that they find their own places to live.

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