Home Health Care Nurse Must Be Paid for Time Traveling Between Patients

By Joanne Deschenaux, J.D. Aug 2, 2017
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A company that provides home health care services must pay a nurse for the time he spent traveling between patient locations and for the time he spent attending mandatory training classes and visiting the company's home office to replenish medical supplies and submit required paperwork, the California Court of Appeal ruled.

Even though the nurse received a fixed payment for each patient visit he completed, no matter how much time he spent with that patient, he was entitled to receive additional hourly wages for the work time that he was not spending with patients, the court said.

Shepherd Home Health Care Inc. provides home health care services to Medicare patients throughout L.A. and Orange counties. Pete Sarantopoulos, a licensed vocational nurse, worked for Shepherd from Dec. 28, 2007, to Sept. 6, 2011. As a field nurse for Shepherd, Sarantopoulos would visit patients in their homes or at residential facilities and provide care based on their doctors' requests and on Shepherd's care plan.

Shepherd paid Sarantopoulos a flat rate for each patient visit he completed, regardless of the length of the visit. Sarantopoulos also received a mileage reimbursement from Shepherd because he used his personal vehicle to travel between patient locations. The mileage reimbursement compensated Sarantopoulos for the use of his vehicle, but not for the time he spent traveling between patient locations.

In addition, Sarantopoulos was not paid for required monthly continuing education classes, each of which lasted about one hour. Nor was he paid for several visits per week he was required to make to Shepherd's home office to pick up medical supplies he needed during patient visits, as well as to pick up and drop off the forms that Shepherd required him to fill out about each patient visit.

After Shepherd fired Sarantopoulos, he filed a lawsuit seeking unpaid wages. The trial court found in the employer's favor. Sarantopoulos appealed, and the appellate court reversed the trial court's judgment.

Employees May Be Entitled to Extra Compensation on Top of Piece Rate

The court first noted that, in California, wage and hour claims are governed by both the state's Labor Code and a series of 18 wage orders adopted by the Industrial Welfare Commission, a state agency. Nurses fall under the scope of Wage Order No. 4, which applies to all people employed in professional, technical, clerical, mechanical and similar occupations.

Wage Order No. 4 requires that employers "pay to each employee, on the established payday for the period involved, not less than the applicable minimum wage for all hours worked in the payroll period, whether the remuneration is measured by time, piece, commission or otherwise."

Wage Order No. 4 defines "hours worked" as "the time during which an employee is subject to the control of an employer, and includes all the time the employee is suffered or permitted to work, whether or not required to do so."

The court interpreted the wage order to mean that when an employee is paid a piece rate—a fixed amount for each task performed—rather than by the hour, but also performs additional tasks not related to the piece-rate work, the employee is entitled to an hourly wage for the additional work.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Complying with California Overtime Payment Law]

The trial court therefore erred, the court noted, in denying Sarantopoulos' request for wages for time spent traveling between patient locations. As a field nurse providing in-home care, Sarantopoulos was required to travel to the homes of his patients; the travel time was necessary to perform his job, and he did so to benefit his employer. Although Sarantopoulos had considerable flexibility over the order and schedule of his patient visits, this didn't convert his travel between patient locations to noncompensable time. The appellate court held that Sarantopoulos was entitled to recover minimum wage for travel time between patient locations, which the parties agreed was 15 minutes on average.

In addition, the appeals court ruled that Sarantopoulos was entitled to recover minimum wage for the two hours a week he spent at Shepherd's home office obtaining medical supplies and handling paperwork and for the one hour each month he spent attending required training sessions.

Sarantopoulos v. Shepherd Home Health Care, Calif. Ct. App., No. B267364 (July 24, 2017).

Professional Pointer: A state law that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2016, now explicitly governs the payment of piece-rate compensation, adopting the position taken by the court in this case about payment for additional duties.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md.

 

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