Violation of Overtime Rules a Big Problem in Healthcare

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The U.S. Department of Labor recently launched an initiative focusing on pay practices throughout the healthcare industry to ensure compliance with minimum wage and overtime provisions of the FLSA.

The FLSA requires that covered employees be paid at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 for all hours worked, and time and a half their regular rates of pay for hours worked beyond 40 in a week. But this is not happening in hospitals and nursing homes across the country.

A recent New York Times article notes that "hospitals around the country have paid millions in back wages to settle claims by the government and their employees. And many more hospitals are fighting class-action lawsuits that raise the same issues."

"The issue of members working through meal periods or staying after work and not being paid has been a concern for as long as I have been a union president," says Candice Owley, president of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals and an AFT vice president. "Some facilities work very hard to make sure everyone is either paid or relieved, and others turn a blind eye to the problem."

A recent survey of nurses in the Milwaukee area revealed that this is a widespread problem in the nonunion hospitals. "I think more FLSA lawsuits are the answer, so employers will work harder to make sure workers are paid or relieved," says Owley. "We have won many grievances at different facilities. Fifteen years ago, one of our represented hospitals had to pay $500,000 in a settlement because the nurses were not getting duty-free lunch periods."

Owley says one of the biggest challenges is getting employees to insist on their contractual and legal rights.

Dona Frazee, president of the Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals Albany Visiting Nurse Association, says overtime violations have been "a long-standing problem" at her agency. Nurses are expected to get supervisory approval to work overtime if they can't complete their work during a shift or if they need to work through lunch, Frazee says. She adds that some supervisors will readily approve the overtime, while some won't.

"We've had reports that a supervisor would deny the approval for overtime, telling the nurse that there will be time the next day" to catch up on the paperwork, Frazee says. "The next day comes, things get busy, and there is no time to get caught up. Then the nurse gets frustrated and does the paperwork on his or her own time."

When Harry Rodriguez, who is president of AFT Local 5123 at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London, Conn., discovered that employees were working off the clock, he approached the hospital's CEO. "The hospital was in violation of FLSA, and I told him the hospital was going to get hit for a huge sum of money if the practice didn't stop."

Rodriguez also had to inform employees about the consequences of working off the clock. "In the end, the hospital is not getting a true and accurate picture of workers' productivity."

To avoid being taken to task over the overtime violations, the hospital worked with the local to encourage the employees to stop working off the clock. Although there are still some workers who continue the practice—and some managers who look the other way when they do—Rodriguez says that the overall number of people who work overtime but don't get paid is minimal.

"Labor and management worked together to fix the problem," he says. [Adrienne Coles]

August 18, 2010