Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Va., has called on the nation’s top labor regulator to crack down on the rampant exploitation of caregivers in senior residential care homes, many of whom earn as little as $2 an hour to work around the clock with no days off, while some industry operators rake in millions.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor, Scott asked the agency to provide a full accounting of its efforts to combat the “troubling trend of wage and hour violations” in senior board-and-care homes across the U.S. It marks the federal government’s first steps to tackle the systematic abuse of mostly poor, immigrant workers in the industry. 

Scott’s action was spurred by a recent two-part investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, which found that care-home operators across the nation broke minimum wage, overtime or record-keeping laws in at least 1,400 cases over the last decade. Reveal found shocking cases of human trafficking. Some workers have reported sleeping on the floor, on living room couches or in garages. Caregivers routinely are harassed and fired if they complain. Some feared for their lives.

Reveal also found that companies caught stealing from workers continue to operate illegally despite outstanding wage theft judgments, leaving scores of workers unpaid. For example, after California regulators two years ago imposed fines against one care home totaling nearly $1 million for unpaid wages and penalties, the company and its owner filed for bankruptcy. But the facility continues to operate under the same name, and five caregivers previously employed there still haven’t received any of the back wages they are owed. There are many similar cases. California regulators have the power to strip these companies of their licenses, according to legal experts contacted by Reveal. But Reveal found they’ve failed to act.

The investigation also sparked responses at the state level. Some California lawmakers said they are researching new legislation aimed at strengthening regulations. In addition, the California Fair Employment and Housing Department, the largest state civil rights agency in the country, is launching a new education and outreach campaign aimed at thwarting employment discrimination in the industry.

“The facts uncovered in this investigation are really troubling and illustrate the meaningful improvements that need to be made to the pay and working conditions of caregivers,” said California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego. “I am going to work with other committed legislators in the coming months to figure out how to stop this abuse.”

At the federal level, enforcement by the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division “appears to be failing many elder care workers,” wrote Scott, who is chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. “A recent investigative report by The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that an alarming number of workers in the senior residential care industry earn wages that are effectively well below the federal minimum wage, and overtimeeligible workers are not compensated for overtime hours worked.”

In his letter, Scott asked Cheryl Stanton, the head of the Wage and Hour Division, for documents and information on the agency’s enforcement efforts in the senior residential care industry, the number of cases the agency has brought against senior care facilities and the agency’s efforts to catch senior care operators that dodge accountability for back pay owed to workers. Scott asked for the information by Aug. 16, followed by a briefing on the matter.

Ron Simpson, a founding director of 6Beds Inc., a lobbying group that represents small care-home operators across California, did not respond to requests for comment.

Worker advocates applauded Scott’s push for more scrutiny of the mistreatment of caregivers in the industry.

“I commend Chairman Scott’s leadership on this,” said Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “It’s the (Labor) Department’s job to hold employers accountable not only because it’s the law, but it’s also among the fastest-growing occupations in the nation due to the surge in need for elder care on the part of the growing aging population. And because it’s the just and moral thing to do.”

Looking forward, an aide for the House Education and Labor Committee said the committee’s primary concern is that the Labor Department deliver a relevant response to Scott’s request. 

Grant Vaught, a Labor Department spokesman, did not respond to an email seeking comment. 

This story was edited by Narda Zacchino and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Jennifer Gollan can be reached at jgollan@revealnews.org. Follow her on Twitter: @jennifergollan

Jennifer Gollan

Jennifer Gollan is a reporter for Reveal, covering labor and corporate accountability.

An Emmy Award winner, Gollan has reported on topics ranging from oil companies that dodge accountability for workers’ deaths to lax manufacturing practices that contributed to deadly tire blowouts.

Gollan uncovered rampant exploitation and abuse of caregivers in the burgeoning elder care-home industry. The series, Caregivers and Takers, detailed how operators enriched themselves while paying workers about $2 an hour to work around the clock. The stories prompted a congressional hearing, plans for prosecutions and new state legislation. 

Gollan exposed how Navy shipbuilders received billions in public money even after their workers were killed or injured. In response to her reporting, Congress passed a new federal law, the Government Accountability Office produced a report and the Pentagon began scrutinizing the safety records of more defense contractors.

Gollan’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Guardian U.S., Politico Magazine and PBS NewsHour.

Her honors include a national Emmy Award, a Hillman Prize for web journalism, two Sigma Delta Chi Awards, a National Headliner Award, a Gracie Award and two Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing Awards. She has been a finalist for an ONA Online Journalism Award, an IRE Award and two Gerald Loeb Awards. Gollan is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.