It was a rare victory. Early this month, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office reached a settlement with a San Fernando Valley home health care company. The company, charged with wage theft and violating minimum wage by paying domestic workers as little as $4.25 per hour, agreed to pay fines, restitution and submit to regular monitoring to avoid future workplace violations. Raising glasses and congratulating each other for fighting an employer that consistently told home health workers to falsify their time sheets to cut hours and pretend that they were “independent contractors” rather than employees, more than two dozen domestic care workers took the afternoon off to celebrate.

“This was a victory felt by all,” said Aquilina Soriano Versoza, executive director of the Pilipino Workers Center of Southern California.

Domestic workers

However, the case exposed what too many of the nation’s 2 million domestic workers know from experience. Many of the labor laws that protect workers in other industries, don’t apply to domestic workers who toil in private homes — particularly those who provide live-in care for children and seniors.

“Historically, domestic workers have been excluded from even the most basic federal labor laws,” says Megan Whelan, communications and logistics coordinator for the California Domestic Workers Coalition. “The issue is about how domestic workers are valued and treated nationwide.”

Rules for live-in care

Although the Fair Labor Standards Act ensures that all workers — including housekeepers and babysitters — are paid minimum wage, the law does not apply to those who provide live-in care. Instead, these workers are subject to a patchwork of state laws that offer varying levels of protection.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance is hoping to introduce national legislation that would provide at least a basic level of protection to domestic workers no matter where they live or work. However, the proposal has yet to be submitted and may hit tough sledding in a Congress that appears more divided on partisan lines than ever in history.

“We have passed domestic worker bills of rights in eight states and municipalities.,” says Marzena Zukowska, head of communications for the National Domestic Worker Alliance. “We will be tackling this at the federal level in the coming weeks.”

Demand for domestic workers

Yet demand for domestic workers has never been higher thanks to two demographic trends — the aging of the massive Baby Boom generation, and the coming of age of the even bigger Millennial generation. In other words, just as more Baby Boomers need home health assistance, more Millennials need nannies and babysitters. These workers often come from the same labor pool. The editor of Holistic Health Care, a medical news site, has said the shortage of home care workers may be “one of the biggest public health challenges confronting the nation.”

Over the past decade, a host of online platforms have emerged to come to the rescue, playing matchmaker between full- and part-time domestic workers and the families who hope to employ them., a review and rating site for freelance workers, lists more than two dozen such companies in the child and eldercare space. These companies, which include Trusted, UrbanSitter, GoNannies and CareLinx, generally allow domestic workers to set up profiles and set their own rates of pay. Yet, despite the perceived shortgage of workers, families often attempt to get out of paying even minimum wage, much less the worker’s stated hourly rate.

Flat rates

How? They propose to pay a flat rate — say, $100 per day, says Versoza. That adds to a reasonable $12.50 hourly when working an eight-hour day, but it amounts to just $4.16 per hour for those who are expected to be on call 24/7, as home health workers often are.

“There’s a mistaken belief that you don’t have to count sleep hours,” says Versoza. “But when you must respond at any moment to someone’s need, you’re not really sleeping. You need to be paid for those hours and you need actual breaks from work so you can rest.”

California’s Domestic Worker Bill of Rights demands that domestic workers are paid for every hour they’re on the job. However, few other states have similar requirements. Some states have no protections for live-in workers at all.

Legal protections

Even in states where the laws provide protections, the nature of domestic work can lend itself to abuses, both purposeful and inadvertent. After all, families with a new baby are unlikely to be familiar with the fine points of labor law. They may end up thinking of a live-in nanny like a family member, who can and should fill in as needed — even if that need amounts to 16-hours in a single a day.

To be sure, live-in help get a number of valuable perks on the job, including meals and free lodging. And for that, many are willing and able to pitch in and help their families with little extras that add to several hours each day. However, some families expect the worker to act like a parent and work whenever needed, regardless of hours. It’s up to the domestic worker to set limits and report violations, if the limits are consistently ignored.

Set rules

Since reporting an employer can be intimidating, Whelan thinks the smartest course is to set rules before you start the job.

Those setting up a profile on one of the online platforms, for instance, should list their pay at a set hourly rate rather than the far more common “negotiable.”

Also be sure to establish working hours up-front so that everyone knows what to expect. Does a family expect the live-in help to work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., for instance? Or is the family dynamic such that it would be better for the nanny/health aide to start later and end later? Does the family want someone to work a few hours every day, or does the nanny  have weekends — or some days during the week — off? In what instances is the nanny/home health aide expected to work overtime and at what rate of pay?

Take shifts

Likewise, realize that someone who is hired to take care of an Alzheimers patient, who is otherwise living alone, needs both breaks and sleep, says Versoza.  Families may need to hire two caregivers, or step in to relieve the help themselves. 

“We really suggest that you never have one person on duty for more than a 12-hour shift,” says Versoza. “Everyone needs rest.”

Moreover, those who work for just one person or family are likely to be employees, not independent contractors. As such, the employer should be taking Social Security and Medicare taxes out of the worker’s pay. The employer should submit that amount — as well as an equal amount for the employer tax portion — to tax authorities. Although this tax reporting can be complex, some sites, such as CareLinx, provide it as part of their service.

Written terms

Workers should also make sure to get the terms in writing, Whelan adds.

Those not sure how to write up an employment agreement can get a sample through a non-profit group called Hand-to-Hand. Hand-to-Hand also has a questionairre that can help draft a custom agreement with unique terms.

“When you employ someone to help you at home, you may still think of it as your home. But it’s also a workplace,” says Whelan. “Every worker should be treated with dignity.”