Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Caregiver's Journey:Be Vigilant When Hiring Private Care

Marsha Kay Seff
by Marsha Kay Seff

When my parents’ private caregiver helped herself to their food and clothing without permission, I ignored it.  But when she walked off with the vacuum cleaner, I sent her fanny flying.

Obviously, it wasn’t just the vacuum cleaner.  It was the feeling that my parents were being violated and that I could no longer trust the caregiver with their care and safety.

Now, years after their passing, I have discovered that their caregiver could have cost us a fortune.  It turns out that hiring a private, or independent, caregiver while still complying with state labor laws is much more difficult than we imagined.  The lost vacuum cleaner could have been the least of our financial woes.

We opted for a private caregiver, like many Dutiful Adult Children, because it seemed less expensive than going through a home-care agency.  That was true on paper.  But it never occurred to us that there were all kinds of potential costs.

In California, you as the employer are responsible for paying Social Security, unemployment and payroll taxes, withholding tax, workers compensation and disability insurance, minimum wage and, possibly, unemployment insurance.

A caregiver’s claim that she’s an independent contractor doesn’t let you off the hook, cautions San Diego eldercare attorney Bill Sauls.  And most caregivers are not independent contractors anyway, he says.

“You simply can’t rely on their claim for meeting the actual test to prove the designation.  If they trip and fall in your house or get hurt lifting your parent, for example, it’s highly unlikely that they have their own workers compensation,” Sauls points out.  “So you’ll end up being responsible.  You’ll probably also end up being responsible for any unpaid taxes, interest and penalties as well.”

If I ever needed to hire home care again, I’d go through a reputable agency that employs its own caregivers and let the company take care of complying with state law and making sure their employees are bonded.

I can only imagine what might have happened to my parents’ nest egg if their caregiver had gotten angry enough to take them to court and we ended up being responsible for all the back taxes and the rest.

But the potential monetary consequences of hiring a private caregiver pale in comparison to the safety considerations.  Who is this stranger?  What if she abuses your parents when you’re not around and they’re afraid or too frail or ill to tell you? Who checks on the caregiver when you’re not around?

Who makes sure she shows up on time?  What do you do if she doesn’t show up and you have to get to work yourself?  Who can you find to fill in?  What if she gets hurt and homeowners insurance won’t pay?  What if she gets angry and turns you in for not complying with state law?

If you decide to hire a private caregiver, ask friends for referrals and check out all the caregiver’s references.  In addition to what you might be able to discern from an Internet search, also check state court records and general public records.  You might even want to hire a private investigator.

Sure, it’s less expensive initially to hire private help than to go through a home-care company.  And if funds are tight, you might not have a choice.

If you understand state labor laws and can comply with them, you’re lucky.  But if you opt to ignore them, keep your fingers crossed that they don’t catch up with you.

If you go with a private caregiver, be extremely vigilant about what is happening in your parents’ home on a daily basis.  Never give the caregiver access to their checkbook or credit cards.  If she needs to write checks, consider opening a small checking account for her with limited funds or a prepaid credit card.

Remember, there are big risks, both to your parents’ finances and their safety, security and general well-being, to letting your guard down.

Sponsored by Right at Home, In-Home Care & Assistance,, (858) 277-5900, Contact Marsha Kay Seff at

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