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L.A. city attorney accuses home healthcare firm of stealing workers' wages

L.A. city attorney accuses home healthcare firm of stealing workers' wages
Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer speaking at a recent news conference (Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles city attorney filed suit Wednesday against a home healthcare business operator, accusing her companies of bilking hundreds of mostly immigrant workers out of their pay while violating minimum wage and overtime laws.

"Stealing wages from hardworking men and women is reprehensible," Mike Feuer said. "No worker should be forced into poverty because an employer denies them their basic rights to a minimum wage and overtime. My office will aggressively combat wage theft and fight to ensure all workers are paid what the law demands."

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Feuer said he was filing the lawsuit Wednesday to send a message that in Los Angeles, workers' rights are being protected.

It is the latest forceful move by the city's top lawyer, who in the last year has taken aggressive stances on immigrant rights, Wells Fargo & Co.'s business practices and patient dumping by hospitals. When the Trump administration ordered a ban on travelers to the U.S. from six countries, Feuer sought to advocate on behalf of affected immigrants at Los Angeles International Airport, but he was denied meetings with immigration and customs officials.

In Wednesday's court filing, the city attorney is using long-standing powers granted under the business and professions code of California. It is the same law that Feuer has used to file suits against hospitals involved in patient dumping and landlords who rent properties with unlivable conditions.

The complaint says that Emelyn Nishi and her corporations, Health Alliance Nurses Corp. and Hand Homecare Provider Inc., have employed 200 or more immigrants, mostly Filipino, during the last four years. The companies, Feuer alleges, repeatedly failed to pay the workers minimum wage or give them overtime earned.

The suit alleges the firms would charge clients between $170 and $250 per day for 24-hour in-home domestic care to patients, but the employees were paid only $100 to $125 per shift, equating to as little as $5.50 per hour or less. According to the lawsuit, the defendants pressured the caregivers to falsify time records to avoid overtime payments and routinely threatened them with termination or blacklisting within the industry.

The workers, the suit alleges, were prohibited from discussing rates directly with clients and often were threatened with exorbitant contractual penalties if they attempted to go to work directly for a client.

Company officials described the litigation as without merit and a misunderstanding of the laws governing the industry and promised to countersue the city for its allegations.

"There is no basis for the lawsuit," said John Arason, a company compliance officer. He said Feuer had been misled by union agitators seeking to unionize workers and control the market.

The suit also alleges that the caregivers were wrongly classified as independent contractors to avoid paying federal and state payroll taxes and to sidestep a state labor investigation into Nishi's operations that started in 2016. Nishi shut down Health Alliance and replaced it with Hand Homecare.

But Arason said Health Alliance was a referral service, while the new firm is an employer.

The city attorney's lawsuit seeks an injunction against further alleged unlawful, unfair and fraudulent business acts as well as financial restitution to all current and former employees. In addition, Nishi and her companies could face civil penalties of up to $2,500 for each violation, according to the suit.

Feuer said he is asking other workers who may be victims of wage theft to come forward and report it to his office.

Twitter: @lacrimes

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