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May 18, 2019

The unpaid cost of elder care

Co-produced with PRX Logo

As the population of Americans over 65 rises, families are increasingly choosing to place loved ones in long-term assisted care facilities called residential care homes. With around-the-clock caregivers and individualized attention in a single-family-home setting, these smaller, more intimate alternatives to the traditional nursing home seem like the perfect place for Mom or Grandpa. They’re more affordable, too. But that affordability masks an ugly truth: Workers doing the day-to-day work of caring for America’s older adults are being exploited.

In this hour, Reveal’s Jen Gollan takes us into her investigation of wage theft, harassment and intimidation in the care home industry and introduces us to some of the caregivers on whose backs that industry has been built.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: Elder care homes rake in profits as legions of workers earn a pittance for long hours of care
  • Read: California regulators aren’t taking action against care homes that ignore wage theft judgments
  • Watch: “I feel worse than animals” – caregivers tell their stories
  • Data: Search labor violations at care facilities

Credits

This week’s show was produced by Jen Gollan and Anayansi Diaz-Cortes and edited by Jen Chien.

We had additional reporting from Melissa Lewis and Rachel de Leon. Thanks to editor Narda Zacchino, senior data editor Michael Corey, managing editor Andy Donohue and our community engagement specialist, Diana Montaño. Special thanks to Hana Baba.

Our production managers are Najib Aminy and Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, with engineering help from Claire Mullen, Michael Montgomery and Kaitlin Benz.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

 

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: This month, we are asking you to join us by becoming a member of Reveal. Our members help us keep the lights on. They power this very microphone that I'm talking into right now. More importantly though, our members, people like you, everyday people, you are powering our reporting.

 

Al Letson: Every week, we go out and give you the best investigative news that we can possibly create. And that's a big task. And the only way we do that is with you. So, all this month, new members who sign up and give at least $8 a month will get one of our FACTS tee shirts. No logos, no advertising, just the word FACTS in big, bold letters. The truth never look so good. Get yours by going to revealnews.org/shirt. Again, that's revealnews.org/shirt.

 

Al Letson: Listen, you love us, we love you. Let's make it official and do some good in the world.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: Recently, Sonya Deza took a trip to the bank. She's driving through the streets of Antioch California, sprawling commuter city about an hour northeast oof San Francisco.

 

Automated: Turn right onto premed ranch drive.

 

Al Letson: Chain restaurants like Chili's and Panda Express. Feel Peach and bade strip malls. Sonya head into one now.

 

Sonya Deza: You go there in Bank of America and Brent Booth.

 

Al Letson: The side of the bank brings back some bad memories.

 

Sonya Deza: I've been sad at the time.

 

Al Letson: Sonia is 66 years old. Originally from the Philippines. She has a serious face that instantly softens when she smiles.

 

Sonya Deza: That's it.

 

Automated: Arrived

 

Sonya Deza: Last time she was at this bank, Sonia was with her boss and as she gets out of the car now she scans a parking lot worrying that he might be around. She puts on her sunglasses as a disguise.

 

Sonya Deza: I can hide you but no.

 

Al Letson: She says her boss brought it to this bank to cash a check, a check he had written her for back pay he owed her.

 

Sonya Deza: Had to go in line. Then I signed the at the back my name Sonya Deza as calculated I'll get the money 8,866 in my hands

 

Al Letson: $8,866

 

Sonya Deza: I went to the car and I hold the money like this. I said to my self this is my money. We tried a lot of money and big money.

 

Al Letson: Sonya says her boss made her cash that cheque and another one totally more than $17,000 and then she says he made her hand the money over to him all but $1,000

 

Sonya Deza: I should though the money. She didn't say nothing. That's my money. I said,

 

Al Letson: Sonya has no savings, no retirement account, no safety net. The story of why she cashed that cheque and gave the money back to her boss is a story of worker exploitation in a fast growing industry. Reveal's Jennifer Gollan has been investigating this over the past year and Jen, it was Sonya's job to take care of older people living in what's called a Residential Care Home. Can you explain what that is?

 

Jennifer Gollan: We all know that baby boomers are getting older and while some people can continue to live on their own with their families, there's also a growing part of the population that needs a place to stay. That's where these Residential Care Facilities come in. There are about 29,000 across the US and many were once single family homes that these owners have converted into assisted living for seniors. The ones we're talking about today, they typically have six to 10 residents.

 

Al Letson: Why is the care home industry growing so fast right now?

 

Jennifer Gollan: Well, there's a bunch of reasons when you want to be in a nice home versus an institution.

 

Al Letson: Yeah, of course.

 

Jennifer Gollan: I mean the beauty of them is they're tucked into these small neighborhoods and they provide a homelike setting for seniors. They get to know the caregivers really well because these caregivers are often on duty around the clock. These are often cheaper alternatives to nursing homes. But there's a dark side.

 

Al Letson: You mean like what happened to Sonya?

 

Jennifer Gollan: Exactly. Regulation is really lax, so these places just don't face much oversight and that's led to rampant exploitation.

 

Al Letson: How'd you find Sonia?

 

Jennifer Gollan: Well I stumbled on Sony's case because I was actually taking a look at her boss Ramelle Publico, Ramelle his wife, they own a chain of four care homes and each one has caregivers. Just like Sonya and they've all got stories.

 

Al Letson: How did she end up at the bank cashing a cheque for her boss?

 

Jennifer Gollan: Well, that's what I wanted to find out, so I went to visit her. Hi Sonya. I've been talking to Sonya for months on the phone before I finally meet up with her in person at her sister's house

 

Sonya Deza: How are you?

 

Jennifer Gollan: This is the part of the story where you normally hear a dog barking at the reporter as they walk in, but the dogs in this house, they're frozen. They're actually porcelain figures.

 

Sonya Deza: No dog.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Oh, I love it.

 

Sonya Deza: I was wanting to pet this one years ago.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Sonya came to the US in 2000 after her husband passed away. She was here to look after her dad who was already here, and she really needed a job.

 

Sonya Deza: Send the money to the Philippines to support my family.

 

Jennifer Gollan: In 2012, she ran into Ramelle's sister.

 

Sonya Deza: As he said, "Oh, you want to apply to Ramelle," yes. I have no job.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Ramelle hired her to be a live in caregiver at one of his homes. She'd be one of two workers taking care of up to six residents.

 

Sonya Deza: My salary is only $50 in 24 hours.

 

Jennifer Gollan: That breaks down to two bucks an hour. To put that in perspective, the federal minimum wage is 725 an hour, so by paying his employees, what amounted to less than minimum wage Ramelle was breaking the law. On top of that, Sonya says, if she wanted to get that one day off a week.

 

Sonya Deza: You need to find a releaver and you'd be the one to deduct your own salary

 

Jennifer Gollan: Basically, she'd have to find someone to fill in for her and then she'd have to pay that person out of her own pocket.

 

Sonya Deza: Because I need a job, because I don't have a job. I accept it. I had no complain because I need to support my family in the Philippines, two daughters and two grandkids. Yeah.

 

Jennifer Gollan: I met another woman who worked for Ramelle. Her name is Norma Lemb.

 

Normeeta: My girlfriend referred me, to Romelle Publico. That's how I met him,

 

Jennifer Gollan: Norma goes by Normeeta. She met Ramelle and his wife Glenda in 2009 Normeeta, says Ramelle is a real charmer.

 

Normeeta: Well he is strict man believe me. The wife is nice. Glenda. They're very sweet. He knows how to flirt, he knows how to grease on you. That screwed them. You cannot get angry with him because he knows how to make you feel good. I had no complaints. The only problem is he tried to cheat us.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Before Normeeta met Romelle she was a professional poker dealer, but then she had a stroke and was left partially paralyzed. She wasn't sure what to do, she was in her sixties and she just didn't have a lot of options. Then she met Romelle and she felt like her luck had changed and he offered her the same deal Sonya had $50 a day.

 

Normeeta: I'm disabled and an old lady. Patients love my cooking and I had no problem in the beginning. I was glad that I had a job.

 

Jennifer Gollan: You're effectively earning $2 an hour.

 

Normeeta: I didn't even think about that. That was very little.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Normeeta love the residents. They had fun together. They'd eat meals as a group and watch soap operas together in the living room. The house had lots of space, 2,500 square feet, but with up to six residents at a time. The work was relentless. It was like being the housekeeper, Cook, nurse, maid all rolled up into one. And if you listened to Sonya.

 

Sonya Deza: I woke up at five o'clock in the morning.

 

Jennifer Gollan: And Normeeta

 

Normeeta: And prepare for the breakfast.

 

Jennifer Gollan: As they take through their typical workday.

 

Sonya Deza: Feed the six patients.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Their experiences sound nearly identical.

 

Sonya Deza: At around seven o'clock they had to clean to the bathroom.

 

Normeeta: And then after that I clean up the kitchen.

 

Sonya Deza: Clean the rules one, two, three, four, five bedrooms there. You have the bucket on the floor,

 

Normeeta: Build in their mitigation,

 

Sonya Deza: Cleaning.

 

Normeeta: Then get ready for.

 

Sonya Deza: Lunch.

 

Normeeta: Then feed them and then after that.

 

Sonya Deza: Bring the patient to the bathroom.

 

Normeeta: Clean the kitchen and prepare for dinner.

 

Sonya Deza: The same routine.

 

Normeeta: I'm not really off because I stay in.

 

Sonya Deza: You cannot sleep all night and going to be calling. Help . You need to be patient to the patient all night long. Sometimes your patient is crazy. Sometimes they are fighting with you.

 

Normeeta: They'd make a mess in their bed.

 

Sonya Deza: We changed the diaper every two hours.

 

Normeeta: Change them, change the bed sheets. Cleaned them up.

 

Sonya Deza: Because we stay when we stay here, so we need to help our patient. This is our job.

 

Jennifer Gollan: And if one of the residents died Normeeta says Ramelle would cut her pay by $100 that month. Were you ever allowed to leave the facility?

 

Normeeta: No we cannot leave.

 

Sonya Deza: I have to ask permission if there is nobody who will take over.

 

Jennifer Gollan: She didn't even get Christmas off. Instead, there'd be a big party right there at the care home.

 

Sonya Deza: Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays. We work am telling you no day off. There's no day off.

 

Jennifer Gollan: You had this great connection with so many of your patients, yet you are exhausted.

 

Sonya Deza: Well for me, I didn't feel nothing job his job for me. I just paid what they give the honor.

 

Jennifer Gollan: She was willing to put up with it and never reported Romelle because she didn't want to lose her job. Other employees stayed quiet because they were worried about their legal status in the US

 

Jennifer Gollan: Romelle is from the Philippines like Normeeta and Sonya. He found them and other workers by tapping into a network of Filipino immigrants in the San Francisco Bay area.

 

Valarie F.: This is probably the best place to come if you want to get a job as a caregiver.

 

Jennifer Gollan: This is Valerie Francisco Manchavez. She's writing a book about the caregiving industry. She lives just south of San Francisco in Daly City.

 

Valarie F.: This is little Manila, a Pinoy capitol the center for a Filipino American immigration coming in.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Valerie was born in the Philippines. She moved here when she was nine and was actually partially raised in a care home. It's where her grandparents worked.

 

Valarie F.: My sister and my brother and my mother and I shared one room next to a kitchen. We as children help them take care of the elderly folks in that care home. We would get up from 6:00 AM and have a schedule of domestic tasks all the way to 10:00 PM.

 

Jennifer Gollan: She's now a sociology professor at San Francisco State University specializing in labor and the Filipino diaspora, and she talks about a specific cultural dynamic in the Filipino employer employee relationship that can too easily slide into exploitation. The literal translation is a debt of one's in herself.

 

Valarie F.: This idea of [foreighn] is a cultural idea that you feel obligated and indebted to someone who gave you a kindness, who did you a favor by giving you a job.

 

Jennifer Gollan: This has to do with an almost feudal class system in the Philippines. Valerie says her grandparents had that relationship with their boss.

 

Valarie F.: Because they thought that this person who was another Filipino that owned the care home was doing them this favor, this great kindness to allow them to have a new life in the United States.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Valerie says there's another Filipino concept at play here. It's called kapwa

 

Valarie F.: Kapwa means being togetherness. It is a way that Filipino, see, there's social relations with one another as about uplifting the collective good.

 

Jennifer Gollan: She says, the circle of kapwa can extend to fellow coworkers, the residents they care for, the families back in the Philippines and even their employer.

 

Valarie F.: When Romelle offers them to have a holiday at the care home, they continue to work. If you feel like your care home owner or the elderly folks are your family, you won't want to leave because you're already, “Spending time with your family,” which is an obvious breach of work conditions.

 

Jennifer Gollan: I spoke to dozens of caregivers. They all told me how they were overworked and underpaid, but they rarely reported it to authorities. I asked Normeeta if she ever complained.

 

Normeeta: I did not complain.

 

Sonya Deza: I am not a complainer. Never complained. That's why they love me.

 

Jennifer Gollan: But someone must have complained. I found that out after calling federal regulators and reviewing reams of court documents from cases all over the country, I uncovered case after case of wage theft. That's when an employer doesn't pay for all the hours that someone's worked, operators were breaking minimum wage over time and record keeping laws nationwide. I found 1400 cases, about a third of them were in California, and one of them jumped out at me. Ramelle and Glenda Publico in 2013 they were ordered to pay more than $133,000 in back wages to 22 employees, including Sonya. That's how she ended up in that strip mall parking lot with that cheque.

 

Sonya Deza: You want me to show it to you the document you need to sign? I forget my glasses.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Sonya still has the paperwork from the Department of Labor.

 

Sonya Deza: I will show it to you.

 

Jennifer Gollan: It said Ramelle owed her more than $17,000 in bank wages. The money was a surprise. She hadn't realized or Mel was breaking US labor laws and now he was asking her to sign the paper to prove to the government that he'd paid her the money.

 

Sonya Deza: I said, what is this? I don't know. What is this. Why should I do sign this before I sign this I need a cheque. Where is the cheque.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Eventually he gave her the check and she agreed to sign that document Ramelle. But that moment of victory, it was fleeting because remember at the bank. Ramelle made Sonya hand all the money back to him. What was going through your head at that moment?

 

Sonya Deza: Why is Romelle doing that to me. What do you think of me. I'm sad because that's my money. Why, we worked hours in that care home. He's a liar, he's greedy. I think he's greedy.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Sonya tells me that later. She was mad at herself for giving the money back, but she felt like she didn't even have a choice.

 

Sonya Deza: What can I do? I'm afraid because I think he will fire me Where can I go?

 

Jennifer Gollan: Ramelle says he didn't do anything wrong, that he treated his workers fairly, but three other employees say that Ramelle also made them return back wages. As for Normeeta she never even got a cheque. She and Sonya keep working for him, hoping things will get better. And they do a little, he gives them a raise, a small one, and Sonya gets Sundays off without having to pay her replacement, but not much else changes for now.

 

Al Letson: Federal regulators already came down on Ramelle, but what he doesn't realize is that other investigators will soon be taking a closer look.

 

Speaker 7: On the day that we do the search warrant, we knock on the door.

 

Al Letson: At this point you might be wondering how does anyone even get into this business? It turns out there's a whole industry out there to help people get started.

 

Speaker 8: I do not know of another business model like that. That is why we call America's Untapped Business Opportunity.

 

Al Letson: That's next on reveal from the Center for investigative reporting in PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for investigative reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today were following the story of two women, Sonya Deza and Normeeta Lim who found themselves working around the clock taking care of seniors in residential care facilities, the women only took home about $2 an hour. The care home industry they work in is growling nationwide because there's huge demand and the potential to make big profits

 

Speaker 8: Today communication is going to be about how do you make money owning a residential assistant living facility. Show me the money.

 

Al Letson: YouTube is full of videos like this one from something called Assisted Living University. They have lots of advice on how to get started for small residential care homes. The bar's pretty low.

 

Speaker 8: I have no formal training in caregiving. I've never been a caregiver before and nor do I have any formal medical training or background.

 

Al Letson: No formal medical training. So what do you need. First a piece of real estate to convert into a care home. Then a state license in California that means initially taking an 80 hour training course that focuses mainly on administrative stuff. If you want to work in a care home like Sonya and Nomeeta you only need 40 hours of training. This is in a state that requires a manicure to get 10 times that amount and once your business is up and running, you can pull in more than a quarter of a million dollars a year with just six clients.

 

Speaker 8: I do not know of another business model like that. That is why we call it America's untapped business opportunity. This is called in because this really coming in, this is called incom

 

Al Letson: People who want to make that in com have a lot of support. Reveal's Jennifer Gollan meets up with a man who could help there money making dreams come true.

 

Jennifer Gollan: When I meet Ron Simpson, he tells me he's making plans to go paragliding

 

Ron: There is an point where we live in Paris.

 

Jennifer Gollan: That's Paris, California near where Ron lives and Ron looks like he's living the southern California dream. He's in his seventies with glistening silver, hair up perfect hand peeking out from the top of his unbutton shirt. I offer him coffee, but he asked for tea.

 

Ron: I get the Yogi tea at parties and there is a lot worker than this dandelion tea that you've given me.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Ron got into the care home business when his wife's grandmother, who we call granny needed more help. They had put her in a nursing home, but she hated it. One day Ron had an idea.

 

Ron: So I'm lying in bed watching the buffalo bills play a football game. Winter The Sunday Times, found four houses for rent, looked at them all that day and rented a house that day.

 

Jennifer Gollan: They moved granny in and Ron says, within weeks her health improved so much. He thought to himself, I should do this for a living. He didn't have any training in caregiving, but he quit his job in product development, bought a house and got to work.

 

Ron: Started late 94 early 95 taking care of other residents as well as granny I've been doing it ever since. It's the most rewarding, fulfilling thing I've done in my life.

 

Jennifer Gollan: So fulfilling that Ron helped start a group called Six Beds. It represents more than a thousand other small care home operators like him who run places with six beds or less. The group lobbies for laws that are good for business and it holds public workshops to educate people already in the field or who are thinking about getting started. I visited one recently at an auditorium in Los Angeles.

 

Ron: We want to get started so if people could find their seats.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Ron's given the interest speech in front of about a hundred people. It's a mix of men and women, mostly white and Filipino dressed business casual, coffee in Styrofoam Cups and Browning Bananas set out as snacks and American flag hangs at the front of the room.

 

Ron: We're going to start with the pledge of allegiance.

 

Jennifer Gollan: in the afternoon session. Labor regulators explain the labor laws that apply to the industry and then there's the State Department of Social Services which licenses care home operators. They were there too, but all that came after spending the morning listening to people who had a different message. They were saying, yes you have to follow the laws, but they also had lots of advice on how to do the bare minimum for maximum profits and the biggest place to cut costs employees.

 

George: Thanks Ron for the intro. I appreciate it.

 

Jennifer Gollan: George Kuhn Nerian takes the mic. He oversees public policy and legislation for Six Beds and he's all about saving money. For example, the law requires a private quarters for the caregivers, but George says

 

George: They don't say a bedroom as under local zoning laws. They always use the term porters in my opinion, the garage, if it meets all the furnishing requirements, should count as quaters. Again, is there some gray areas? But they never use the term bedroom has to be home like.

 

Jennifer Gollan: I spoke with caregivers who did sleep in the garage on the Living Room, Sofa, even on the floor. I also found a case where an operator charge caregiver is $25 a day for their lodging. Another thing, George talks about our brakes, which are required by some states like California, when there's more than one caregiver on duty at a time, employees can leave the house to take meals or rest breaks, but he says,

 

George: This whole turns into residency. You can require them to take there meal time on the premises, so they technically take a break, but they're not allowed to leave.

 

Jennifer Gollan: That means the caregiver is stuck at the house, the state doesn't require any more than one worker on duty, even when they have to take care of six people and George points out. Having one caregiver is a good way to save money.

 

George: You want your workers to stay overnight on the premises to be classified as living so that you can take advantage of that.

 

Jennifer Gollan: You take advantage of that because as George says, you don't have to pay live in workers for the time they're supposed to be sleeping overnight.

 

George: Basically what you need to make sure is that they get five that have an opportunity and you get five hours of sleep the five hours don't need to be continuous.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Listening to all of this. I kept thinking about Sonya and Normeeta. They told me they could never get enough sleep because the residents would constantly wake them up. As George wraps up his talk, he encourages care home owners to quote respectfully push back on the department of social services or DSS if they ask you to do something that could cut into profit.

 

George: There's this assumption that the DSS says and you have to have two workers all the time. That's also not true. These are all myths. These are all the myths and we need to stop because a lot of times when DSS maybe has been asking you isn't going to work from all the hour of the employees. If you get a claim or lawsuit.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Some of what I heard in that workshop seem to put profits over employees and I wondered if that kind of message could lead some employers to think, well, it's okay to take advantage of workers. For example, George clearly told the crowd that they don't really need two caregivers to run a six bed facility. Here's what Ron Simpson said about that. When I asked him.

 

Ron: I don't know anybody in these days that uses one caregiver

 

Jennifer Gollan: When he got started in this business 25 years ago.

 

Ron: It wasn't unusual for a six bed facility to get by with one caregiver because most of the people in those homes then we're fairly independent. Now there's hardly any home that doesn't have at least two caregivers,

 

Jennifer Gollan: But that's not what I found. I uncovered cases from the past few years. Where just one caregiver was on duty caring for six residents around the clock, unable to leave the home, even for doctors appointments. But Ron tries to convince me that that just isn't happening anymore.

 

Jennifer Gollan: It sounds like you're saying that operators who didn't play by the rules and didn't pay their workers properly is a thing of the past. Is that right?

 

Ron: Yeah, it doesn't sound nice to phrase it like they're not playing by the rules. I think that most everybody that does this work does it because they care about the elderly and to try to make their life as joyful as it can be. when they get to the point where they're not independent and they don't necessarily think about or know exactly what's involved with Labor requirements.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Ron's says it's not just the owners who are in it for altruistic reasons. The employees are too, and he says what's upsetting workers is the increased scrutiny and bad press around wage theft and abuse.

 

Ron: Until the audit started, and the publicity started, that would give this industry a bad name. The caregivers we're really happy with their situation.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Why were they happy?

 

Ron: Because they had a place where they could live. They loved what they were doing. They were fulfilled by enriching somebody else's life.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Were there exceptions?

 

Ron: Yeah there were exceptions. There were people I want to say took advantage of caregivers and that's how the audit started. Most caregivers were extremely happy.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Especially Ron says the Filipino caregivers.

 

Ron: It's in their culture. They are kind and compassionate and loving people.

 

Jennifer Gollan: In fact, he only hires Filipino caregivers that has chain of care homes.

 

Ron: I've interviewed a lot of other people and nobody really picks it up and nobody is fulfilled by caring for the elderly the way I've seen the Filipinos do it. I couldn't find somebody that grew up like I did in the US, who would work and do the work and do it as well and do it for minimum wage.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Ron Sees caregiving as just a natural career path for Filipino immigrants. I wondered what Valerie Francisco Men Chavez would think of that.

 

Jennifer Gollan: She's a sociologist who grew up in a care home with her grandparents.

 

Valarie F.: I don't think there's anything inherent about Filipinos taking caregiving to the elderly jobs. These are the jobs that are available to Filipinos who are coming to the United States.

 

Jennifer Gollan: We just sent from overseas workers make up 10% of the Philippines GDP. Valerie says it's not an accident that so many caregivers are Filipino immigrants. There is a decades old labor pipeline that runs from the islands to the US its former colonizer in the twenties and thirties it was farm workers in the eighties and nineties nurses and now caregivers.

 

Valarie F.: There has always been a link between workers coming from the Philippines and working in the most dispensable, disposable, domestic and cheap labor in the United States.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Contrary to what Ron Simpson says, Valerie says, these workers are not content to do difficult work for minimum wage because they're from a kind and loving people.

 

Valarie F.: It doesn't just come from their Filipinness. It comes from they're disempowered positions as immigrant workers, newcomers to the United States, immigrants and their lack of ability to have other people advocate for them.

 

Jennifer Gollan: This kind of exploitation is an issue in states with large Filipino immigrant communities like New Jersey and California, but plenty of other caregivers are in this same disempowered position. They're all part of an industry that's increasingly hiring immigrants and people of color, and those groups are among the lowest paid and most at risk of labor exploitation. The kind of exploitation I found in the care home industry. I took this information to Ron Simpson and I told him that I'd uncovered 1400 cases of wage theft and other labor violations over the last decade.

 

Ron: How big a deal is 1400, it sounds pretty dramatic, but it's not something I've heard before and I don't know. What's the significance of that to you?

 

Jennifer Gollan: Well, you're in new business, so that's why we're asking you

 

Ron: I know what we're talking about. What six beds is doing to try and educate people to be compliant, to understand what's required.

 

Jennifer Gollan: I give him a chance to take in this information and explain exactly what the numbers mean. He responds by questioning why I'm even reporting this story.

 

Ron: Well, I don't know how you made your decision to investigate this, but somebody's supporting it. You have been on this for a long time, we've been talking a long time. This is the second workshop you've come to, and we've talked long before that. Someone's making a big investment in this.

 

Jennifer Gollan: We are not guns for hire where independent reporters and the reason we're doing this story is it's in the public interest. We're interested in how the industry is policing itself, how it cares for caregivers, how caregivers are being treated and why some of them are earning 2 to $3 an hour.

 

Ron: You really believed that some of them are earning only 2 to $3 an hour?

 

Jennifer Gollan: Well, their documents and evidence to support their stories. We've spoken with dozens of workers who have told us that they're earning 2 to $3 an hour. What do you make of them?

 

Ron: Well, I'm suspicious that that's probably not accurate. That the caregivers don't understand when they're working and when they're not.

 

Jennifer Gollan: I know my numbers are accurate. The evidence comes from federal and state investigations. While Ron seems to be saying caregivers don't know what they're talking about, workers like Normeeta Lim actually do understand when they're working and when they're not.

 

Normeeta: I cook and then feed them and then clean. We'll all day work. I work all day straight all the way.

 

Jennifer Gollan: While they may not always feel brave enough to speak out, employees like Sonya Deza do know when their employers have cheated them, like when Ramelle forced her to return or back pay.

 

Sonya Deza: That's my back pay because I worked 24 hours in that facility. That was my money.

 

Jennifer Gollan: There's one thing I haven't told you about when Sonya return that money to Ramelle. Back in the Philippines. Sonya majored in business in college, so she made a calculated move before she handed over the cash. She made Ramelle sign a document handwritten by her as a kind of receipt.

 

Sonya Deza: This is to certify that I received from Sonya Deza on July, 23 2013 the amount of $8,866 in cash.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Sonya hopes that one day that document will help her get her money back.

 

Al Letson: Sonya keeps on working for a Ramelle but soon and unexpected allies shows up at the care homes front door.

 

Sonya Deza: Then when I opened the door, we had a police. We were shocked, "Don't move." We had a search warrant.

 

Al Letson: That's coming up next on Reveal.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for investigative reporting in PRX. This is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. It's a sunny September morning in the northern California suburb of Antioch and Sonya Deza is up and about her routine today is like every day awake at 5:00 AM make breakfast for the group of seniors she takes care of, get them fed and washed up.

 

Sonya Deza: It's 7:30 in the morning. We will bring one patient in the bathroom.

 

Al Letson: But on this day something interrupts her routine.

 

Sonya Deza: I said, “Oh, who's snapping the door? It's too early. Who's that there is a doorbell.”

 

Al Letson: Sonya goes to answer.

 

Sonya Deza: Then when I opened the door, they had a police. We were shock. "Don't move. We have a search warrant."

 

Al Letson: The care home where Sonya works is being raided and the man on the other side of the door wants to hear her story is Reveal's Jennifer Gollan.

 

Jennifer Gollan: That man was an investigator named Jeffswamp Man.

 

Jeff Swampman: I do fraud investigations. I'm an inspector with the Contra Costa County District Attorney's office.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Contra Costa County is where Sonya lives. Jeff was investigating her boss Ramelle Publico. He was still paying workers what amounted to $2 an hour even after federal regulators had busted him for ripping them off. Jeff's job is to go after employers suspected of wage theft. He's investigated a lot of care homes and the stories are always pretty much the same.

 

Jeff Swampman: The tenants are the patients from every case I've ever had are always well taken care of. It's really the employees that are getting the short end of the stick here.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Jeff Investigated Ramelle but he tells me he can't talk about the case because it's still pending. He did agree though to describe how these types of investigations usually go without naming names. He says, he often first checks out the home posing as a potential customer.

 

Jeff Swampman: I just tell them I'm so and so. My father's getting to the point where I'm about ready to put him into a care home while they always let you in because they want your business and they show you around.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Then he does some more research, gets a search warrant and with that in hand, he goes back to the care home. This time as himself.

 

Jeff Swampman: On the day that we do the search warrant, we knock on the door.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Like that morning he and a team of investigators showed up at the care home where Sonya was working.

 

Jeff Swampman: The first thing we do is we contact the employees, sell them down, tell them why we're there, tell him they're not in trouble for anything.

 

Sonya Deza: She will show me the search warrant. Then there not hurting you stay there. The patient, and we're scared because there's a police, they have a gun

 

Jennifer Gollan: Besides the soap operas after lunchtime. This is the most high stakes drama the care home has ever seen. One of Sonya's residents wants to know what's going on.

 

Sonya Deza: She said, "Sonya come here. Why do I have you lot of people there?" I told him you know why, somebody not me, not us report to the Department of Labor. I said, that's not our problems. That's that's Ramelle's problem.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Sonya sits down to be interviewed. She is nervous.

 

Sonya Deza: We are live in. I said, we stay here 24 hours.

 

Jeff Swampman: We document how much they're getting paid, when they get paid, how they get paid, whether they're being paid below minimum wage, whether they're being paid over time.

 

Sonya Deza: I had a cheque. I said, “You want me to show it to you?” “Yes, give to me” I show it to him. This my salary. 639 in two weeks. Do you know how much an hour? I said almost $2 and I tell to the investigator

 

Jennifer Gollan: One thing on Sonya's mind that $17,000 she says, Ramelle took from her. Sonya still has the receipt. She had him sign to prove what he did, but she doesn't mention it to investigators. She's scared and she doesn't want to lose her job. She also worries that her coworker might rat her out to Ramelle and if other care home operators find out she talked, she might get black lited.

 

Sonya Deza: That's why I had to be quiet. I'm afraid nobody will hire me.

 

Jennifer Gollan: At some point, investigators go upstairs

 

Jeff Swampman: Always in these care facilities you'll find documents related to the operation of the business and oftentimes, we also find large amounts of cash.

 

Sonya Deza: They banged the door there and lock the door there and get all the filings, the filings of the clients and all of us.

 

Jennifer Gollan: The investigators sees all the files and leave. The next time Ramelle comes to the house, he grills Sonya,

 

Sonya Deza: He's angry with me. Told me that. “Oh, I heard you said that you work here 24 hours.” I said, “Yes, that is true. I stay here 24 hours.” “You will ruin my reputation.” “Do you want me to be a liar to lie to that investigator? Oh, no way. Oh my goodness” “Why did you say that?” I'm telling the truth. That's why she's angry. She wants me to lie to the investigator. No.

 

Jennifer Gollan: But Ramelle doesn't fire her and life at the care home continues.

 

Sonya Deza: I am still working. Continue working.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Investigators interviewed other workers who told them what Sonya was too afraid to say that Ramelle drove them to the bank, forced them to cash cheques for back wages, and then took the money for himself. Jeff Swampman says what Ramelle did was one of the most egregious cases he seen but not uncommon.

 

Jeff Swampman: These cases take a long time to develop and to actually bring them to conclusion and I don't have time to go out and check all these facilities.

 

Jennifer Gollan: I talked to dozens of investigators, regulators and attorneys. They say this type of behavior is endemic in the care home industry, not just in California but across the country and there's probably far more than those 1400 cases that I found, but there's another thing when owners get caught, they rarely face the consequences. Some declare bankruptcy to avoid paying a fine. Others just ignore it or they play these corporate shell games. One woman I found declared bankruptcy that kept a hand in the business after she transferred control of it to her mother.

 

Jeff Swampman: I could do this for the rest of my life and not even scratch the surface of the wage theft in worker's compensation insurance fraud that occurs here.

 

Jennifer Gollan: State and federal regulators are supposed to protect workers, so we asked California's licensing agency why it's allowing at least 20 care companies to continue to operate illegally after they'd been caught stealing workers' wages, the head of the agency wouldn't agree to an interview, but a spokesperson said they couldn't put them out of business unless they found a threat to the health and safety of the residents. They never mentioned the workers. The US Department of Labor or DOL wouldn't talk to me either. Instead, they sent me a rehash statement from last year seeing they'd recovered a quote record setting $304 million in back wages and that they were doing lots of outreach to educate operators. But if that's the case, then why are there so many workers still waiting for their back wages?

 

Speaker 12: The house will be in order. [inaudible]

 

Jennifer Gollan: I met with Democratic Congresswoman Rosa Delauro of Connecticut. She's the new chair of the House sub committee that oversees Labor's budget. She's a passionate speaker and in a sea of blue and gray suits, she stands out. She's wearing colors like the plumage of a tropical bird, bright orange scarf, lime green shirt and purple hair. We have this vulnerable population. DOL has stepped back and allowed this to happen. Then who is going to protect these vulnerable people?

 

Rosa: It falls to the congress since there's been abdication, at the agency level that the congress needs to take this on.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Deloro says she's been trying. In 2017, she sponsored a bill to fight wage theft. It died in committee. The day I met her. She had just introduced a new budget provision that we'd let DOL hire 500 additional inspectors, but the agency has to be willing to go after employers.

 

Rosa: I believe in compliance. We want to get people to comply, but they are unwilling to deal with severe enforcement and strict enforcement of the law and apply the penalties that would deter these people from that kind of behavior.

 

Jennifer Gollan: At the local level. Some prosecutors are acting on their own. California is one of a few states where prosecutors are filing criminal charges against care homeowners, and that brings us back to Ramelle Publico. About a year after they raided, his care home. Sonya is still working there. She starts noticing that something's off. Ramelle and his wife, they're showing up every day.

 

Sonya Deza: She's painting, she's fixing all the things there. I waited to picks they get home.

 

Jennifer Gollan: When Sonya asks what's going on, they just shrugged her off.

 

Sonya Deza: May they will admit the patient. I said, "Oh really?"

 

Jennifer Gollan: Then one day another man shows up at the door.

 

Sonya Deza: "Oh, did Ramelle told you he will sell this care home." I said, "No. He didn't say anything about this facility."

 

Jennifer Gollan: Sonya never finds out who he is, but within weeks Romelle shuts down the care home.

 

Sonya Deza: Because he sell the care home they put out all the patient after that more. Just only said that this already closed. You had to move, so we can move that's it.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Just like that. Sonya lost her livelihood and her home.

 

Sonya Deza: Of course, I'm sad because I had no job again.

 

Jennifer Gollan: The Contra Costa DA has charged Romelle and Glenda Publico with several felonies, including tax evasion and grand theft. A judge also prevented the Publico's from cashing in on their properties. When they sold the homes, the money went into a special account that they couldn't touch. Theoretically, that money could eventually make its way to caregivers. After the Publico sold the home where Normeeta Lim worked, she stayed on with a new owner for a month and then she quit

 

Normeeta: The new owner. I like him. He's worse than Ramelle. I bet they're not staying there.

 

Jennifer Gollan: But she and Ramelle do stay in touch and she has mixed feelings about that.

 

Normeeta: He keep calling me anytime. Sometimes I wonder why you calling me. No, I just want to hear your voice. He still contacting me.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Do you still trust him?

 

Normeeta: No more. We cannot trust him anymore. He can poke sweet, but there's no reality

 

Jennifer Gollan: And that money he owes her. She doubts she'll ever see it.

 

Normeeta: Well, what am I going to do? I'm telling you I cannot squeeze his blood. I'm just a human being too, and he is human being. We just have to bepatients and then wait, if there's something coming, we'll be thankful to God.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Over the past several months, I reached out to Ramelle many times, I've spoken to him on the phone for hours, but he refused to meet in person. One day I drive up to his house, not far from the care home where Sonya worked. It's this big two story home on a tree lined street with a deck overlooking this beautiful golf course.

 

Speaker 14: Hello?

 

Jennifer Gollan: Hi, I'm here for Ramelle.

 

Speaker 14: Ramelle is not here.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Glenda?

 

Speaker 14: Glenda is not here as well.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Oh, I see. Okay. I get back in the car and I call Ramelle. He answers, but it's hard to hear him. Hey Ramelle it's Jen Gallen. How are you?

 

Ramelle: I'm okay.

 

Jennifer Gollan: I'm actually at your house.

 

Ramelle: So who open the door.

 

Jennifer Gollan: An older woman did.

 

Ramelle: That's my mom.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Oh, that's your mom. Oh,

 

Ramelle: 84 years old I just give her a beautiful birthday.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Birthday? Now, in the past, Ramelle told me he treated his caregivers like his own mother. How does that square with the caregivers who were saying they were paid $2 an hour to work around the clock.

 

Ramelle: [inaudible] but you know what I didn't cheat them.

 

Jennifer Gollan: It's hard to hear, but he tells me he didn't cheat them. I continue to press him when he won't answer any more questions. All he says is he's praying a lot. What are you praying for?

 

Ramelle: Peace of mind

 

Jennifer Gollan: Peace of mind. I've been reporting on this story for almost a year. Consumed with spreadsheets, court documents, investigative files, but there's one thing I keep coming back to at the heart of this story is how we as a country take care of our elders and how we treat our caregivers.

 

Normeeta: Hi stranger. This is Jennifer.

 

Jennifer Gollan: May we come in.

 

Normeeta: Sure.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Normeeta takes me to meet one of her favorite residents. Richard Ican Dorf. She looked after him for nearly a decade, but they haven't seen each other in a couple of years. He's in a different care home now.

 

Speaker 16: You're looking good Norma.

 

Normeeta: You too.

 

Speaker 16: For an old goat not Bad. My chair is the bed.

 

Normeeta: Before Richard landed at the Publico's care home, he was living in a huge expense of nursing home. Almost $8,000 a month. He has no family, so he wasn't getting any visitors. He hated the food and he felt like a number, but then he met Normeeta.

 

Ron: Remember I said I was there when you arrived?

 

Richard: I fell in love with her right away. I was quite impressed with the other.

 

Valarie F.: Hearing them talk. It's clear how close they got at the care home, Normeeta look after Richard and Richard worried about her.

 

Richard: She was always doing something and preparing or cooking or preparing the next meal.

 

Normeeta: And clean then the kitchen.

 

Richard: Didn't seem like Norma had enough time off really. She was putting in extra hours of extra time there.

 

Jennifer Gollan: This is vital work. Taking care of older Americans who in some cases have nowhere else to go and despite those long hours and rock bottom pay caregivers like Normeeta and Sonya, they develop deep bonds with their residents. They really are like family.

 

Richard: I just saw days of our lives, Norma,

 

Normeeta: [inaudible]

 

Richard: Chad and Abigail are leaving Shalem

 

Normeeta: The palace they're going to get married before they go to Paris.

 

Richard: How about that? Okay.

 

Jennifer Gollan: Richard's say's his new place. It's okay, but nothing like the old days with Normeeta.

 

Richard: [singing]

 

Normeeta: He doesn't look like 90.

 

Al Letson: Workers in residential care homes are being exploited across the United States. As we've mentioned, Jennifer uncovered 1400 cases. You can find out if this is happening in your community by visiting our website. Reveal news.org/caregivers where we set up a searchable database. While you're there, take a deeper dive into our complete coverage, including photographs or the people you heard from in the story.

 

Al Letson: Today's show was reported by Jennifer Gollan. Our lead producer was Anansi D' as Cortez, Jen Sheahan edited the show. We had additional reporting from Melissa Lewis and Rachel Deleon thanks to editor node as a Keino senior data editor, Michael Corey, managing editor, Andy Donahue and our community engagement specialist, Deanna Montanyo, our production managers on the G Bimini and Melinda La hosa original scoring sound design by the dynamic duo. Jay Breezy, Mister Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man a Ruda. They had help from Claire c Note Mullen and Katelyn Ben's, our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Beth

 

Al Letson: Thompson is our editor in chief, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Comorado lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Rev and David Logan Foundation. The John D and Catherine T Macarthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising Simons Foundation, and the ethics and excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co production of the Center for investigative Reporting in PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember there is always more to the story.