Emeritus splashes into the headlines with more bad news. Agrees to pay a $2.2 million settlement to settle underpayment claims by line staff members.

I first saw the story about Emeritus agreeing to a $2.2 million settlement for violation of California labor laws on Friday morning.  The story was first reported by ProPublica, the organization behind the PBS assisted living report a few weeks ago.  I have really struggled with whether or not to write about it at all, because I have gotten to know a number of people who work for Emeritus and have heard stories about how demoralizing these stories have been to them. It is sometimes hard to balance writing about what is important to the industry while not wanting to inflict further pain.  At the end of the day, though, it is important news and needs to be explored.

The Settlement

In 2011 two Emeritus direct-care employees filed suit claiming they had been underpaid.  The lawsuit covered direct care staff and was ultimately given class action status.  The claims include:  underpayment, denial of overtime, mandated meal times, rest times and uncompensated training sessions. While agreeing to the settlement, Emeritus claims they are adequately staffed and workers are properly compensated.  They further claim that they “strive to be the employer of choice”.  

What It All Means

It is easy to kick an organization when it is down and it is hard to know how to balance what is legitimate news and what is just exploiting someone else’s bad fortune.  These are the thoughts that keep percolating through my mind:

  • The old saying that where there is smoke there is fire makes me think that Emeritus has some real culture problems that need addressing.  I say that knowing that it is difficult to know if the public problems of Emeritus mean they not doing as good a job as the other large national providers or if they are just the unlucky targets of ProPublica and FRONTLINE. 
  • The Details Matter.  $2.2 million is not a trivial amount of money which suggests Emeritus either has real exposure or did not do an adequate job of keeping records.  It is a reminder to all of us that we need to be meticulous in our recordkeeping.
  • Team members who like their jobs, the company they work for, the working environment and the people they work with and for don’t sue.  It is a reminder that creating an excellent work environment is more than just pay and benefits, it is creating a culture where people can hardly wait to get to work.
  • Family members and residents who feel loved rarely if ever sue.  This is tough because it is ultimately all about how good or bad the executive director at a community is.  If they love coming to work and are committed to having staff that love to come to work and love their residents, there is a lot of forgiveness . . . a lot of grace. 
  • As terrible as this last month had been for Emeritus, if I were advising them, I would suggest that since the conversation is all about them, they have the ability to control or at least steer the conversation.


How Emeritus Could Own the Conversation

To this point the Emeritus response has mostly been to portray themselves as the victim of a hatchet job by PBS and ProPublica and, to a large degree, I agree with this assessment.  That being said, it is a terrible way to own the conversation and to get on top of the story.  I would like to propose the following would be a better way:

  • Emeritus needs to treat this as a “wake-up” call that they need to make some changes.  This is not to say they were a bad company before but rather that these public problems point the way toward making the company better.
  • They then need to be talking about what the right standard for care for seniors with and without dementia should be.
  • They should create a blue ribbon watchdog committee that would meet perhaps quarterly for the first year and would include outside experts to review incidents, make recommendations and issue public reports on how far they have come and what they are still working on.
  • Finally I would suggest they hire an outsider to field the complaints and guide the response.  It is almost impossible to do the best job of responding to attacks when you love your organization.

   Steve Moran