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Low-wage workers were cheated at care homes, U.S. says


Original source:
http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Low-wage-workers-cheated-at-nursing-homes-U-S-6184758.php

SF Gate
Bob Egelko
April 7, 2015

More than 1,300 low-paid workers at Bay Area nursing homes and residential care centers were cheated out of minimum wages, overtime and other legally required payments totaling millions of dollars from 2011 to 2014, the U.S. Labor Department said Tuesday.

The department described enforcement actions it has taken in the past several years that collected more than $6.8 million in back wages and damages for the workers. By law, if the courts find that a business has cheated its workers, they are entitled to double the amount that was wrongly withheld.

“Unfortunately, we find that many of these workers and caregivers are extremely vulnerable,” said Michael Eastwood, assistant director of the Wage and Hour Division in the Labor Department’s San Francisco office. “They are often recent immigrants and don’t even know they’re entitled to minimum wages and overtime. And there is a history in this industry of not paying minimum wages, overtime or benefits like workers’ compensation.”

The department’s offices in Sacramento and Southern California have found similar violations, Eastwood said.

Studies have also reported wrongdoing in other industries that employ workers at low wages. A nationwide survey of such workers by the National Employment Law Project, a workers’ advocacy organization, found in 2008 that 26 percent said they had been paid below minimum wages the previous week. Seventy-six percent of those who worked more than 40 hours the previous week said they hadn’t been paid overtime.

One case cited in the Bay Area report involved Farol’s Residential Care Home on Eucalyptus Drive near Stonestown Galleria in San Francisco. In a settlement approved by a federal judge in February, the owners admitted they had failed to pay time-and-a-half rates for overtime to 27 employees who worked more than 40 hours in a week between November 2011 and November 2013, and had failed to pay minimum wages to 14 of those workers.

The owners agreed to pay the employees $395,000 — twice the amount of illegally withheld wages — and a $10,000 civil penalty to the government.

No one at Farol’s was available for comment on the case Tuesday.

Some owners have also retaliated against employees who complained about pay shortages, the Labor Department said. In August, Chief U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken said the owners of Lake Alhambra Assisted Living Center in Antioch had punished employees who reported violations by placing some of them on unpaid “vacations” for a week, and by making plans to sell the home to new owners who would replace the entire staff.

Wilken found the owners in contempt of court and prohibited them from punishing workers in any sale agreement. The judge approved a $304,000 wage settlement in October for 32 employees, plus $25,000 in civil penalties. The Lake Alhambra center has been sold to owners who did not conduct mass layoffs, Eastwood said.

The Labor Department urged nursing home workers to report wage violations.

“We will continue to investigate and penalize employers who cheat their employees and gain an unfair competitive advantage over their law-abiding competitors,” said Ruben Rosalez, director of the Wage and Hour Division in San Francisco.

Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: begelko@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @egelko