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High court says Labor Dept. right to limit overtime for some

by on
in Employment Law,Human Resources

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unanimously in a closely watched overtime case that employees classified as home health care workers aren’t entitled to some Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) protections. The ruling upholds a U.S. Labor Department regulation that says those workers aren’t entitled to overtime for hours worked in excess of 40 per week.

The decision signals that the court — with conservative Bush appointees added to the mix — seems inclined to give great deference to agency interpretations of the law, even when those interpretations limit employee rights.

The case: At stake was potential liability for home health care industry employers that could have added up to more than $1 billion. Evelyn Coke, a 73-year-old woman who had worked for more than 20 years as a home care aide, filed the original lawsuit. She argued that a 1975 Labor Department regulation exempting over 1 million home health care workers from overtime was invalid. The Service Employees International Union, whose members include workers in the nursing and related health care industries, assisted in Coke’s case.

The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Coke.

Long Island Care at Home, the agency Coke worked for, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Bush administration supported the Labor Department regulation, arguing that it was up to Congress to decide whether home health care workers employed by agencies should get overtime. Congress has never specifically said that they should, and the Labor Department interpreted that silence as an indication that those workers were not entitled to FLSA overtime protection. (Long Island Care at Home v. Coke, No. 06-593, U.S. Supreme Court, 2007)

The future: Look for more Supreme Court decisions siding with government agencies’ interpretations of the law. This case was quite a slap-down of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles appeals of New York federal cases. The 2nd Circuit had said it was inconceivable that Congress meant to exclude a large group of employees from the FLSA’s protections. Apparently, it was wrong. 

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