Wage Theft Is A Problem In Elder ‘Board & Care’ Homes — And Caregivers Of Color Are Bearing The Brunt
Clustered in a residential neighborhood in West Hills are six ‘50s-era low-slung houses converted into board and care facilities — part of an industry fast expanding to serve the waves of California baby boomers aging into illness and disability.
And it’s where, regulators say, the staff — almost entirely Filipina women — worked 24 hours a day, six days a week for years caring for patients who were often bed-bound with dementia and Alzheimer’s. For many caregivers, the lump sums they were paid amounted to as little as $2.40 an hour.
In what’s become a landmark case in the world of elder care, state regulators ordered the owner of the Adat Shalom chain of board and care homes to pay nearly $8.4 million in lost wages and damages to 148 former employees.
In issuing the citation in 2018, then-Labor Commissioner Julie Su said at the time that “adult care facilities require caregivers to work around the clock, making workers in this industry vulnerable to wage theft and exploitation.”
But four years to the month since owner Angelica Reingold was cited, not one cent has been paid out. Every staffer has moved on to other jobs, not knowing when — or if — they will ever recoup their losses.
Avoiding payment is a common practice among board and care operators cited for wage theft, said Yvonne Medrano, an attorney at Bet Tzedek Legal Services who assisted the Adat Shalom caregivers file their complaint with the state.
"I think the narrative [among lawbreakers] is 'Yeah, you can get cited but then just ignore it and you'll be fine,'" Medrano said. "What some do is just shut down and or hide their assets. We get judgments that are not worth the paper they're written on."
Wage theft — and the failure to collect judgements — harms the caregivers of color, mostly women, who dominate the staffing ranks at board and care homes, some of whom are undocumented and are reluctant to report violations in the first place.
But it doesn’t appear the Adat Shalom case will fade away. An attorney with the Labor Commissioner’s office has said it is “moving forward” with the process of recovering the funds from Reingold and will consider tools such as property levies and wage garnishment.
And advocates and workers will continue to apply public pressure. In October, some former staffers accompanied by organizers from the Pilipino Workers Center rallied outside the chain of board and care homes in West Hills, now called Land of Peace.
And days before Christmas, advocates and workers visited Reingold’s home in West Hills and sang retooled Christmas carols:
Pay your worker what you owe – Fa-la-la-la.
$8.4 million dollars. Fa-la-la-la.
Aquilina Soriano Versoza of the Pilipino Workers Center, which brought the Adat Shalom case to the state on behalf of the workers, said the underpaid staff enriched the owner while subsidizing a form of home-based care, licensed as Residential Care Facilities for the Elderly, that is often seen as more affordable than larger facilities.
“Many of [the former staff] are really struggling still right now,” she said. “There’s real impact of not having the wages that they should have been paid.”
An attorney for Reingold has not responded to requests for comment. It’s not clear what Reingold’s current ownership stake is in the chain, but Tigran Zakharyan identifies himself as the CEO of Land of Peace since mid-2019. Zakharyan has not responded to a message left with a staffer at Land of Peace.
Asked about the Adat Shalom case and the prevalence of wage theft in the industry, the California Assisted Living Association issued a statement from its president, Sally Michael.
“While we are not aware of the specifics of the case, wage theft is unacceptable in ours or any industry,” Michael said. “Workers must be rightfully paid and any inadvertent oversight or errors immediately corrected.”
For workers' advocates, wage theft is a growing concern in an industry that is quickly expanding. The California Department of Social Services says there are more than 7,500 Residential Care Facilities for the Elderly statewide. Nearly 20% of them are located in Los Angeles County.
Hundreds of wage theft complaints stemming from board and care operations have been forwarded to the state. The Adat Shalom case is an anomaly because of the size of the citations, large for any industry, and because workers stepped forward en masse to bring a complaint to the state.
Medrano said individuals who speak up about wage theft at board and care homes do so at great risk to their livelihood.
“The operator community is so tight-knit that there's often blacklisting,” she said. “If [workers are] fired or retaliated against, they know that it's going to take a long time for them to see any remedies. And then even if they win, there's an issue of collecting.”
For years, there was no move to collect in the Adat Shalom case as Reingold appealed the 2018 citations.
But in October, a hearing officer upheld the Labor Commissioner’s decision. The citations had climbed from more than $7.1 million in 2018 to more than $8.5 million after adding on penalties.
Reingold has not sought a review of the October decision, clearing the path for regulators to begin the process of recovering the judgment money. But how long that will take is unknown, said Melvin Yee, a staff attorney for the Labor Commissioner’s office.
“What’s the timeline for this case? I can’t respond,” he said. “A lot of it depends on the defendant and whether they have the money.”
Yee said there's always the possibility that defendants will change their minds and voluntarily make payments.
Adat Shalom’s name may have been scrubbed from its old premises, but its digital footprint lives on in positive Yelp reviews.
Soriano Versoza said that some of the families with relatives in the homes may not have known about how overworked and underpaid the caregivers were. She said that as people investigate board and care operations for loved ones or themselves, they should inquire about working conditions.
“There's a different level of stress that comes with living with super-low wages,” Soriano Versoza said. “Being paid at least minimum wage and overtime benefits makes a big difference in terms of the quality of care that workers are able to provide to clients.”
Workers, she said, are people too, not robots.
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