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Germany: Court's order on nursing care workers sparks debate

June 26, 2021

Germany's top labor court has ruled that workers, mostly from eastern EU countries, hired for "24-hour nursing" in hundreds of thousands of German homes, are entitled to minimum wage, even while on standby.

Symbolic photo of two sets of hands; a younger person holding an elderly hand
An estimated 4 million people in Germany are care-dependent, and three-quarters receive care at homeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg

In Germany, at least 300,000 foreign helpers, mostly women from central and eastern EU countries, work in care-dependent German homes. Two-thirds of these workers do not have contracts, according to Germany's foundation for patient protection. 

Many of these women work in so-called 24-hour private home care. On Thursday, Germany's top labor court ruled that minimum legal wages must be paid to live-in caregivers, including for time spent on standby. 

Responding Friday to the labor court's ruling, Germany's federal aged care commissioner, Andreas Westerfellhaus, said Germany is facing a dilemma in trying to reconcile patient needs at home with "questionable" foreign hiring, unclear worker qualifications, and few opportunities for caregivers to integrate into German society while always on call.

Open Borders and Elderly Care

Costs too high for care-dependent homes?

Verena Bentele, president of Germany's large VdK welfare federation, warned that the ruling could make care unaffordable for care-dependent German households with insufficient incomes.

Frederic Seebohm, who manages Germany's domestic care association (BihG), told DW that hiring care workers under the classic model for 38.5 hours per week and with insurance means the foreign hiring model is "dead."

"You would then have to create three to four full-time positions for one person in care. That is €15,000 in costs per month," he said, adding that people will resort to under-the-table hiring and unqualified workers moonlighting.

The BihG estimates 4 million people in Germany are care-dependent, and three-quarters receive care at home.

On live-in care, Germany's Health Ministry headed by Minister Jens Spahn of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives said Friday it had no plans to rethink a treaty exemption allowing 24-hour care in Germany, despite International Labor Organization (ILO) guidelines.

A young aged care nurse escorting an elderly women with a walking frame
Beyond nursing homes, millions of Germany's aged hire foreign caregivers at homeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg

Current employment model 'indefensible'

Arguing for further reform Friday, Labor Minister Hubertus Heil of the Social Democrats (SPD) said it was indefensible that persons from central and eastern Europe "are held 24 hours in a house and not treated like proper employees.

"Work has dignity. No matter whether you come from Bucharest or from Bottrop: When you work, then you must earn a decent wage," said Heil. 

Thursday's court order focused on a lawsuit filed by a Bulgarian woman who was paid €950 ($1,130) monthly to care for a 96-year-old woman in her Berlin home during two phases in 2015.

The Bulgarian, who told DW that she was often required to get up during the night, change diapers and administer medication, first won her case before Berlin city-state's labor court, where she sought €42,636 overtime pay, minus €6,680 already remunerated.

Her service contract with a Bulgarian agency specified 6 hours of work daily, amounting to 30 hours per week, weekends excluded, but included the "intended service" wording "24-hour caregiving."

Entrance portal in Erfurt, with eagle plague in yellow
Top labor court orders legal wages for live-in caregiversImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Her ex-employer claimed it had no knowledge of the overtime she had worked.

The Federal Labor Court — reviewing the agency's appeal contested before a middle-ranked court — on Thursday ruled that the woman was owed backpay and sent the case back to Berlin-Brandenburg's regional labor court to determine how much pay she was still owed.

Originally, that court had recognized payment of a minimum wage for 21 hours per calendar day, amounting to €38,377, minus €6,680 in wages already paid.

Live-in home care fraught with legal risks

Federal commissioner Westerfellhaus added Friday: "Far too little is known publicly that most of these nursing care-settings are fraught with great legal risks."

"Legal risks — possibly even criminal liability — are involved," Westerfellhaus told Germany's Funke Media Group, referring to German law on workplace safety. He added that the need for further reform was "complex, but obvious."

ipj/sri (epd, KNA, dpa, AFP)