7 months of worker's pay disappears; county says it is not responsible

A Sonoma County jury may get to decide a case that has far-reaching implications for thousands of in-home caregivers throughout California.

The key issue in a civil lawsuit filed by a local caregiver is who qualifies as her employer -- the client who receives care through the Sonoma County's In-Home Supportive Services program or the county itself, or both.

Adelina Guerrero, a Santa Rosa caregiver whose disabled client apparently absconded with seven months of Guerrero's wages, tried to collect her pay from the county in 2011. She was denied, and a Sonoma County Superior Court judge dismissed most of her legal claims, ruling that the county wasn't responsible because it wasn't her employer.

But last week, a state appeals court reversed that ruling and sent the case back to Sonoma County for a trial. The county can still appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Lawyers for Guerrero said the case could affect every county that administers the in-home care program for low-income or disabled residents and the thousands of workers who provide the care.

"This is a massive problem for IHSS workers," said William Hoerger of California Rural Legal Assistance.

Many of the caregivers, like their clients, are lower income and often are immigrant women who don't understand their legal rights, he said.

Their advocates probably didn't realize, either, he said, that the county or the program set up to administer it could be held responsible as "co-employers."

"This is probably the first case in the state that has been litigated in this way," Hoerger said. "This could really have a large impact."

A county lawyer representing In-Home Supportive Services and Sonoma County couldn't be reached Friday for comment.

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