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Home care workers hold employer accountable for unpaid wages and retaliation

Lawsuit also sets good case law for enforcing workers’ rights

August 24, 2022

Three home care workers have gained $21,000 in unpaid wages and damages in a lawsuit against their employer. The settlement requires Bwell Healthcare, Inc. and its owner to compensate Pamela Holden, April Wright, and Stephanie Williams for misclassifying them as independent contractors, failing to pay overtime and travel time between clients’ homes, and retaliating against workers the defendants thought were involved in the lawsuit. The women persevered through three years of litigation and ultimately won a victory that not only secured justice for themselves, but also sets good case law that will help other workers enforce their rights. 

The case began in March 2019 when Pamela Holden and April Wright sued Bwell Healthcare, Inc. and its owners for unpaid wages. The workers were represented by Public Justice Center attorney David Rodwin. When another worker joined the collective action lawsuit a few months later, the defendants got nervous and started firing anyone they thought was connected to the lawsuit, including Ms. Holden (Ms. Wright started another job before the firings). Bwell also fired Ms. Holden’s sister, Stephanie Williams, which the plaintiffs believed was an attempt to further threaten Ms. Holden and intimidate other potential plaintiffs, even though Ms. Williams hadn’t joined the lawsuit.

Bwell underestimated the women. Ms. Williams decided to join the lawsuit, and together, they demanded that the company stand down. They asked the Court for a temporary restraining order requiring Bwell and its owners to do three things: 1) give them their jobs back, 2) avoid retaliating against them or any other home care workers for participation or interest in the lawsuit, and 3) avoid communicating with any of the home care workers they employ about the suit or with PJC clients. During the hearing, Ms. Holden gave passionate testimony about why she was fired and the financial and emotional harm the terminations inflicted on her and her sister. The Court granted the temporary restraining order and later converted it to a preliminary injunction that would last for the length of the lawsuit.

In a December 2021 decision on summary judgment, the court held that the plaintiffs were employees, not independent contractors; the defendants violated the Fair Labor Standards Act’s anti-retaliation provision by firing Ms. Holden; and owner Femmy Kuti would be individually liable for any unpaid wages and damages in the case. The subsequent settlement in July 2022 secured $21,000 in unpaid wages and damages for Ms. Holden, Ms. Wright, and Ms. Williams. 

In addition to this excellent result, the lawsuit set important case law for workers’ rights. First, the case addressed the issue of whether a worker can bring a Fair Labor Standards Act retaliation claim when the worker herself did not engage in protected activity, but the employer sought to retaliate against the worker’s close relative by terminating the worker. This was previously an unsettled area of case law. Second, the summary judgment decision sent a resounding and clear message to home care agencies that they may not misclassify their home care workers as independent contractors even when much of the control they exercise over workers is a result of state Medicaid regulations. The defendants had argued that although they set the workers’ pay rates, nearly all forms of control they exercised over the workers were just attempts to comply with state law. The court rejected that view. Many Maryland home care agencies misclassify their home care workers on this flimsy reasoning, so the decision will have far-reaching implications for thousands of underpaid home care workers, the vast majority of whom are Black women.

Our congratulations and gratitude to Ms. Holden, Ms. Wright, and Ms. Williams for their dedication and courage in achieving this victory. The Public Justice Center was proud to represent them.