The Companionship Exemption

Effective January 1, 2015, the Federal Fair Labor Standard Act’s minimum wage and overtime protections will extend to workers who provide essential home care assistance to elderly people and people with illnesses, injuries or disabilities. The revisions to the law narrow the definition of “companionship services” (and therefore limit the use of the companionship exemption) and prohibit third party agencies or home health care companies from claiming the companionship exemption. Under the revised rules, the companionship exemption is limited to an individual, family or household employing a home care aide. In order to legally use the companionship exemption and avoid paying a home care aide overtime, such aide must (1) provide “companionship services” to an elderly person or a person with an illness, injury or disability who needs help in caring for himself (2) for at least 80% of the total hours such aide works per week.

The term “companionship services” is defined as the provision of fellowship and protection. The term “fellowship” means to engage the person in social, physical and mental activities and “protection” means to be present with the person in their home or to accompany the person outside of the home in order to monitor his safety.   The Department of Labor has provided examples of activities that satisfy the meanings of “fellowship” and “protection”, which include conversation, games, crafts, accompanying the person on walks, and going on errands, appointments or social events with the person.

The exemption is available even if the aide provides “care” so long as (1) the care is provided attendant to and in conjunction with the provision of fellowship and protection and (2) if it does not exceed 20% of the total hours worked per week. The exemption will not be available and the employee will be entitled to minimum wage and overtime if the employee spends more than 20% of his time per week providing care. “Care” is defined as assistance with activities of daily living, which include dressing, grooming, feeding, bathing, toileting and transferring and instrumental activities of daily living, which include meal preparation, driving, light housework, managing finances, assisting with taking medications and arranging medical care. The exemption is also not available if the employee provides household work that goes beyond the benefit of the elderly person or person with a disability like doing laundry or preparing meals for other household members.   Lastly, the definition of companionship services does not include the provision of medically related services that would typically be performed by trained personnel and if the employee provides any medically related services he will be entitled to overtime pay.

Can a third party home health care agency use the companionship exemption now? No. Under the revised rules any home care aides hired through a third party agency cannot be exempt from minimum wage and overtime coverage. The exemptions for aides who mainly provide “companionship services” or for live-in domestic service employees (as described below) are limited to the individual, family or household using the services and explicitly do not extend to third party providers. Such providers must pay its home care aides (1) an hourly rate that is at least minimum wage (currently $8/hour in New York) and (2) time and a half ($12/hour) for all hours worked in excess of 40 hours per week.

Live-In Domestic Service Employees. Live-in domestic service workers who live in the employer’s home permanently or for a period of time and are employed by an individual, family, or household are exempt from overtime pay but they must be paid minimum wage. However, live-in workers who are solely or jointly employed by a third party must be paid at least minimum wage and overtime pay for all hours worked.  But employers of live-in domestic service workers may enter into agreements to exclude certain time from compensable hours worked (such as sleep time, meal time and other periods of time where the employee is completely free of work duties). Such employers must maintain an accurate record of hours worked by live-in domestic service workers but may require the employee to record his or her hours worked and to submit the record to the employer.

Additional Information. The U.S. Department of Labor has created a portal for both employers and employees regarding the law changes summarized in this memo: http://www.dol.gov/whd/homecare/

If you have any questions regarding the companionship exemption and compliance with the new laws, please do not hesitate to contact us.