Aaron Feldman is frustrated. He’s spent several months telling the BBS, AAMFT-CA, CAMFT, and anyone else who will listen that he can’t run a therapy business legally and be successful in the state of California. No one has told him he’s wrong.
The problem, which Aaron is trying to conquer while others mostly ignore, is California’s Labor Law. Depending on whom you ask, it might prohibit marriage and family therapist interns from paying their employers for supervision; if it actually does (CAMFT argues otherwise), then a significant number of clinics around the state would be in violation.
But the supervision issue could be only the beginning. Mental health clinics are no different from any other business in the eyes of state labor law. But when was the last time a clinic required its therapists to take at least a 10-minute break every two hours, or mandated a lunch break for shifts lasting beyond six hours? Each of those is a labor law requirement.
At the October 2009 meeting of the Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS), the licensing board’s counsel was clear: Those who employ MFT interns are subject to labor laws just like any other employer, and “there is no scenario under which it would be appropriate for a supervisee to pay an employer for supervision.” The BBS has since elaborated on that position here. CAMFT has since put forth its contrasting interpretation of the law, arguing that it is perfectly legal for an intern to pay their employer for supervision, as long as the terms of the arrangement are agreed to by both parties, in writing, in advance.
It is the Labor Board‘s opinion — or perhaps ultimately a judge’s — that matters. And so far, the Labor Board has chosen to stay away from the issue, politely rebuffing requests to attend BBS meetings or issue any written statement on the question. For the Labor Board to address this issue directly, it appears, they will have to face a complaint from a disgruntled supervisee.
And that has been Aaron’s frustration. He doesn’t want to run his clinic in constant fear of becoming the test case. CAMFT has hinted that they might try to clear up the issue through legislation, but the odds of getting a bill passed if it looks in any way like a weakening of, or exemption from, state labor laws is slim.
Without a clear set of guidelines, what is an employer or agency to do? The lowest-risk approach appears to be to abide by the BBS stated opinion: Assume MFT interns, when they are employed (as opposed to volunteering), are subject to all labor laws, and act accordingly. In practical terms, this would require an employer to go the extra mile to make sure that interns are taking adequate breaks. Do not have interns pay for supervision. Ensure that, however interns’ pay is computed, it amounts to at least minimum wage once all the intern’s time (including time spent on supervision, marketing, administrative tasks, etc.) is taken into account. (Of course, I’m not a lawyer, so please do not construe this as legal advice; any employer with questions about labor law or its application should consult an attorney.)
The problem for Aaron, and anyone else trying to run a therapy business honestly, is that even if he chooses to play by all of the labor law rules, plenty of other employers are not. If Aaron abides by the labor law, he will need to either pay his employees less, or charge his clients more, than similar clinics. The extra burden could be enough to make his clinic, as a business, unsustainable. Until at least one disgruntled intern makes a test case out of it, those who disregard the labor law appear to be at a competitive advantage.