Sweeping new legislation has been proposed in California to curb the pervasive exploitation and abuse of caregivers in residential care facilities.

The measure, recently introduced by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, would require administrators and owners of residential care facilities for seniors, the mentally ill and those with developmental disabilities to undergo three hours of training on employment laws, including minimum wage rates and whistleblower protections. It also would require them to complete two hours of continuing education on employment laws every two years going forward.

Caregivers would be required to receive employment law training as well, including on whistleblower protections and how to file wage theft claims with labor regulators, among other employment laws.

The bill comes in response to an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, which found rampant exploitation and mistreatment of caregivers in the booming senior care-home industry. Reveal found care-home operators profited handsomely while paying workers, many of them immigrants, as little as $2 an hour. Caregivers often slept on floors or in garages and were charged for lodging. Some were victims of human trafficking. Workers frequently were harassed and fired if they complained. 

“These work conditions can particularly affect Filipino Americans who make up a large portion of residential care facility workers and employers,” Bonta, who is Filipino American, wrote in an email. “When employers are better educated about employment laws it will improve compliance in care facilities and improve working conditions. Caregivers provide important assistance to vulnerable Californians who need quality and compassionate care.”

Reveal’s investigation found at least 1,400 cases nationwide in which operators broke minimum wage and other labor laws, yet regulators failed to close those facilities with outstanding wage theft judgments, leaving workers destitute.

Ron Simpson, a founding director of 6Beds Inc., a trade organization that represents operators of small residential care facilities for seniors in California, previously told Reveal that “caregivers were really happy with their situation, in most cases.”

Reveal’s investigation has prompted state and federal action, including an upcoming congressional hearing to crack down on exploitation in the industry, an enforcement sweep launched by California Gov. Gavin Newsom and plans to step up prosecution of care-home operators in California. Scofflaw businesses are being shut down, and caregivers cheated of millions of dollars in back wages finally are being paid.

Bonta’s proposed legislation is supported by a broad coalition, including advocates for workers and consumers, as well as 6Beds.

“There is a high level of profit-making on the backs of workers,” said Hina Shah, an associate law professor at Golden Gate University and director of the Women’s Employment Rights Clinic, which represents low-wage workers in cases involving wage theft, discrimination and harassment and helped draft the bill. “By mandating this employment law training, it sends a strong message to the industry that you can’t blow off compliance, and it elevates workers rights.”

The employment law training could lead to tougher enforcement. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act imposes harsher penalties for violations that regulators deem “willful,” in which employers knew their conduct was prohibited or showed reckless disregard for the law. The training would help federal Labor Department investigators meet that threshold by establishing that employers understood employment laws and violated them anyway.

George Kutnerian, senior vice president of public policy and legislation for 6Beds, said his group backs the legislation because it would standardize employment law training across the industry. 

“Wage and hour laws that apply to residential care settings are extremely complex,” he said.

Currently, senior care-home administrators must undergo an 80-hour training program and pass an open-book exam comprising 100 questions. The bill calls for the mandated employment law training to be incorporated into this program and would add eight questions to the exam focused on employment law.

The bill will be sent to an Assembly committee for review before going to the Assembly floor for a vote. 

Caregiver Julie Riduta, 45, of Concord, hailed the bill as a crucial first step in thwarting exploitative industry practices. 

She earned the equivalent of $2 an hour to work around the clock as a caregiver in a senior care home in the San Francisco Bay Area after arriving from the Philippines more than a decade ago.

“I had an idea that we were underpaid and overworked, but I didn’t know who to turn to for help,” she said. “Our main concern was to help our families, so we tried not to complain. There was a lot of abuse. It’s a big help to educate people on their rights so they won’t feel scared.”

This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and Esther Kaplan 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 an award-winning reporter. Her investigation When Abusers Keep Their Guns, which exposed how perpetrators often kill their intimate partners with guns they possess unlawfully, spurred sweeping provisions in federal law that greatly expanded the power of local and state police and prosecutors to crack down on abusers with illegal firearms. The project won a 2022 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and has been nominated for a 2022 Emmy Award.

Gollan also has reported on topics ranging from oil companies that dodge accountability for workers’ deaths to shoddy tire manufacturing practices that kill motorists. Her series on rampant exploitation and abuse of caregivers in the burgeoning elder care-home industry, Caregivers and Takers, prompted a congressional hearing and a statewide enforcement sweep in California to recover workers’ wages. Another investigation – focused on how Navy shipbuilders received billions in public money even after their workers were killed or injured on the job – led to tightened federal oversight of contractors’ safety violations.

Gollan’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Guardian US and Politico Magazine, as well as on PBS NewsHour and Al Jazeera English’s “Fault Lines” program. Her honors include a national Emmy Award, a Hillman Prize for web journalism, two Sigma Delta Chi Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, a National Headliner Award, a Gracie Award and two Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing awards. Gollan is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.