D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds USDOL’s Revised Regulations on the “Companionship Exemption” Under the FLSA

On August 21, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the U.S. Department of Labor’s revisions to the “companionship exemption” under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and reversed two decisions issued by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that struck down those revisions.  The USDOL’s revised regulations eliminate the companionship exemption for home care workers who are employed by a third-party instead of by the patient or household, and greatly narrow the definition of “companionship services” for purposes of applying the exemption.  According to estimates provided by the USDOL, nearly two million formerly exempt home care workers will now be covered by the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements.

In 2013, the USDOL significantly revised its FLSA regulations regarding the “companionship exemption,” which renders the minimum wage and overtime requirements inapplicable to “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.”  As revised, the regulations prohibit third-party employers, such as home care agencies, from claiming that their employees are exempt from the federal minimum wage and overtime requirements, even if the employees are providing companionship services.  In addition, the revised rule greatly narrows the definition of “companionship services,” so that if an employee spends more than twenty percent of his or her time on the “provision of care,” the employee will be deemed not to be providing “companionship services,” regardless of whether the employee is directly employed by the family or by a third-party employer.  Under the regulations, “provision of care” means assistance with the activities of daily living.

The Home Care Association of America challenged the revised regulations in federal court, contending that the USDOL had exceeded its authority in adopting the revised regulations.  The District Court agreed, and invalidated the regulations.  On appeal, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court, holding that the USDOL had the authority under the FLSA to revise the regulations.  The Court further found that the USDOL’s decision to revise the regulations was “grounded in a reasonable interpretation of the statute” and was “neither arbitrary nor capricious.”

Assuming that this decision stands and the USDOL’s revised regulations take effect, home care agencies will lose the benefit of the companionship exemption.  Direct care workers who provide services in a patient’s home must be paid at least the federal minimum wage (and in New York, the current higher minimum wage of $8.75 per hour).  In addition, home care agencies must pay home care workers overtime at one and one-half times the regular rate for hours worked in excess of 40 in a work week, unless the employee falls within one of the other FLSA exemptions.  The time spent traveling from one patient to another is considered to be compensable hours worked, and will count toward the 40-hour threshold.