She worked 365 days a year and made minimum wage. A judge just awarded her almost $850,000

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John Daley/CPR News
Long-term care worker Aleta Ayo sued her employer, Meadow Vista Assisted Living in Denver, in a dispute over her wages.

Updated June 16, 2023, at 11:17 a.m.

Aleta Ayo has a warm smile and a friendly demeanor — and both come into play in her job as a long-term care worker in Denver. She followed her mom into the business. 

 “I had been going to work with her ever since I was little,” she said. “So caring or being a caretaker just became something natural to me.” 

A few years ago, she took a job with Meadow Vista Assisted Living in Denver, a facility licensed for up to eight residents, which cares for Medicaid patients. Ayo described looking after six or seven people at a time with a variety of mental and physical disabilities. 

“Different personalities, different mood swings, different mental behaviors, different behaviors in general, different emotions,” she said in an interview.

She called it rewarding but hard work. But perhaps the biggest challenge was that she was the lone employee taking care of the group. Her compensation package included a $30,000 a year salary. But it required her to live at the facility. And it required Ayo be responsible for staffing 24 hours a day, seven days a week — and all 365 days of the year.

This went on for years. “I do feel taken advantage of,” Ayo said. “I really think they (the owners) thought I was...stupid or...just beneath them.”

Ayo filed a lawsuit against her employers claiming she was underpaid for years. On Thursday, district court judge Andrew J. Luxen awarded her a judgment of $830,737.68, plus attorney's fees that are estimated to be about $250,000. Her attorney said it may be the biggest sum ever for a case of its kind, the largest ever award to a single minimum-wage worker.

The judge’s award came in two parts. One involving only Meadow Vista, the second involving both Meadow Vista and its owner, Sanjay Aryal. 

Altogether, the total judgment against the defendants included unpaid back minimum and overtime wages, plus penalties, damages and interest, according to her attorney David H. Miller. That sum includes a total award of $622,000, plus another $208,000 the defendants had already paid following an earlier ruling.

Reached for comment Thursday, an attorney for Meadow Vista said he was traveling and hadn’t yet read the judgment.

Long Hours Without A Break

Ayo said she asked the owners, Sanjay and Kanchana Aryal, for more help to care for residents. But after little change over six years, she quit and consulted with an attorney.

Miller, managing litigation partner with Wilhite Law Firm, formerly the Sawaya & Miller Law Firm, said his speciality is in wage theft. He said he’d seen cases like this before and doesn’t think “it's extraordinary because I think this happens to low-wage workers all the time.”

But some details did stand out. 

Because Ayo was required to staff the facility at all times, she could do that by staying there 24/7, which Miller said works out to 168 hours a week without break.

So Ayo asked her mother, Ethel, to step in and help from time to time, at first covering for her if she needed to run an errand or go to a doctor’s appointment. 

“When she realized that was impossible, she worked with the owners to say, ‘Well, can I go out and literally get another job if my mother covers for me?’ And the response was, ‘your mother can work, but we're not gonna pay her.’ ” 

Ayo did have her mother help, and she found outside work to supplement her income.

Miller took the case and sued. 

In court, her employers, Meadow Vista, argued they did nothing wrong or malicious. They denied stealing money or time from Ayo, saying they even paid her while she was working three other jobs. 

In the end, a jury sided with Ayo.

Miller said she deserved to be compensated for those lost wages. 

“It's the same thing as just taking the money out of the workers' pocket,” he said.

A Record Award?

In arguing for a lower sum, Meadow Vista’s attorney David Wollins wrote that “the jury found that defendants had not posted a Wage and Hour Notice” and had not provided a mechanism by which Ayo could keep track of her time.

But “the jury made no findings about wage theft and no criminal wrongdoing was suggested as part of the jury’s verdict,” Wollins wrote. 

But Miller argued if you add up back wages, penalties, interest and attorney's fees the final amount should be nearly $1 million. Either way, he said Thursday, “we believe that this may be the largest award to a single minimum wage worker in the U.S.” 

John Daley/CPR News
Aleta Ayo and her attorney David Miller at his office in Denver.

“For low-wage hourly workers, we haven't been able to find a recovery in a jury verdict that's been anywhere near what this recovery is,” he said.

Why didn't she leave earlier? Ayo said that was in part due to her dedication to the residents. 

“I got so familiar with them and just familiar with their personalities,” she said. “So it was like I was running a home, but I'm not the owner. I'm not the one that's making the bulk of the money, but it was still something that I felt greatly responsible for.”

Miller said Ayo stayed because she hoped to be rewarded for her hard work and loyalty. 

“She could have quit,” he said. Promises were made to her, by the owners, “‘stick around, we'll work with you, stick around. You'll be part of our business in the future. Stick around, we're going to expand, and maybe you could be part of management and maybe you could be part of this growing company.’”

Ayo said she’s grateful she won the case and hopes the result sends a message.

“Within the home care industry, our assisted livings, a lot of owners, they do not pay their employees fairly,” she said. “So hopefully this won't happen again to anybody.”

Ayo said just because someone doesn’t have a college degree and is an ordinary laborer, “doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be paid fairly.”

“There's too many employees that come and they just don't know their rights,” said Victoria Guzman, an associate working with Miller. “And too many employers will take advantage of employees just lack of knowledge.”

The state has taken steps to require employers to notify their employees of their rights, she said.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the amount that a judge awarded Aleta Ayo. There were two different defendants and the combined award is $830,737.68, plus attorney's fees.