Recently, New York’s highest state court, the Court of Appeals, held that the New York Labor Law (NYLL) does not automatically entitle New York home health care providers to wages for each hour worked during a 24-hour shift.

The ruling is the result of an appeal of two state court class actions in which home health aides accused their employers of violating NYLL by failing to pay minimum wage for each hour of their 24-hour shifts. The dispute arose due to a phrase in the New York State Department of Labor’s (DOL) Minimum Wage Order Number 11 for Miscellaneous Industries and Occupations (the regulation), which states that workers must be paid minimum wage for the time they are “required to be available for work at a place prescribed by the employer.” Plaintiffs in both cases alleged that they were entitled to 24-hour pay because their patients could not be left alone and often needed assistance throughout the night, thereby requiring them to be available for work for their entire shift.

The DOL’s longstanding interpretation of the regulation requires only that employers pay home health aides who live on the premises where they work for 13 hours of a 24-hour shift, where the worker is given three hours for meal breaks and an eight-hour sleep break. Upon review, the Court of Appeals rejected the state courts’ findings that the DOL’s interpretation is irrational, unreasonable, and inconsistent with the plain language of the regulation. Rather, the Court of Appeals applied the doctrine of judicial deference, concluding that the DOL is best suited to interpret the regulation, given its administrative expertise in this area. Further, the Court of Appeals disagreed that being physically present and able to work means that a home health aide is “available to work” under the regulation. However, the court cautioned home care agencies that a home health aide who “worked 24-hour shifts without ‘meaningful breaks’” would be entitled to compensation for the entire 24 hours.

It is important for employers to remember that claims under the NYLL are subject to a six-year statute of limitations, and can result in an award of (1) reasonable attorneys’ fees, (2) back pay, and (3) 100% liquidated damages (an amount equal to back pay).

Reed Smith’s experienced Labor and Employment Group is ready to assist employers to update their handbooks and develop clear policies and procedures to evaluate whether their home health aide employees receive the pay to which they are entitled under the NYLL. For more information regarding this law and the accompanying guidance, please contact your Reed Smith attorney.