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Lawsuit against BJC HealthCare alleges wage violations

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 10/23/13

FILE PHOTO: An aerial view of Barnes-Jewish Hospital in the Central West End of St. Louis on March 11, 2011. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

By Jim Doyle

A proposed class action lawsuit has been filed against BJC HealthCare on behalf of a nurse who accuses the nonprofit health system of improperly calculating employees’ overtime hours and meal breaks.

The suit, lodged Monday in Circuit Court of St. Louis, asks for a jury trial to ascertain whether BJC’s wage and hour practices are contrary to Missouri law and to enjoin the health system from rounding overtime hours down to the nearest quarter of an hour.

The case was filed by Annette Speraneo, of St. Peters, a former BJC nurse who began working at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis in January 2011 and later transferred to Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital.

Speraneo’s suit, which asserts that BJC has been “unjustly enriched” by its payroll practices, asks for an award of compensatory damages to employees for unpaid overtime and regular wages in the past two years, plus interest, as well as attorney’s fees.

“In the computer age, there’s no longer a necessity for rounding up or down. All these records are computerized,” said James R. Dowd, a Clayton lawyer and former judge who filed the proposed class action on behalf of Speraneo and other similarly situated BJC employees. “We can tell exactly how much time these nurses have worked, and they should be paid for that time.”

If a judge grants the case class action status, the litigation could involve huge sums of money.

BJC operates 13 acute care hospitals in Missouri and Illinois as well as outpatient and rehabilitation facilities. As of June 30, BJC had 25,200 employees in the St. Louis area. It is unclear how many of those workers are exempt from overtime rules.

Kit Kitson, a BJC spokeswoman, said the health system had no comment on the litigation.

The lawsuit comes at a time when St. Louis-based BJC HealthCare is facing increased financial pressures stemming in part from the national budget crisis and state lawmakers’ decision not to expand Missouri’s Medicaid program.

In June, BJC laid off about 160 employees in part because of reduced government reimbursements for Medicare and Medicaid services provided.

NURSES STEP UP DEMANDS

The suit also comes as registered nurses in the St. Louis area have stepped up their demands for higher wages, health care benefits and increased staffing.

Last year, nurses at St. Louis University Hospital and Des Peres Hospital voted to join the National Nurses United union. Both hospitals are operated by Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare Corp.

Many employers utilize “rounding” systems for employee time records, and federal regulations generally permit employers to round workers’ hours to the nearest quarter hour. But an employer may violate the overtime pay requirements of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act “if the employer always rounds down,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Speraneo’s case was filed under the Missouri Wage and Hour Law, which appears to require that, if a nonexempt employee’s workweek exceeds 40 hours, the employer must pay the worker an overtime rate (of at least 11Ž2 times the regular rate of pay) for the extra time.

According to her case, BJC employees are subject to a “uniform timekeeping policy, under which health care employees were required to record their time worked through the Kronos software program.”

BJC “consistently rounded (her) time worked down to the nearest quarter hour, even if the nearest quarter hour would have required her time worked to be rounded up,” the suit alleges. “As a result, Speraneo was consistently underpaid for time she worked.”

Her complaint also alleges that 30 minutes of pay is automatically deducted for BJC nurses’ meal breaks, even when they are not able to take meal breaks because of patient needs.

“Although (BJC) had a policy in place for reporting instances in which nurses worked through meal breaks,” the suit alleges, “it was and remains the established practice and expectation that nurses work through meal breaks or cut meal breaks short.”

BJC management “knows that its facilities are constantly short-staffed and it was well known to (BJC) that proper staffing was not possible if all health care workers took the automatically deducted 30-minute meal break,” the suit claims.

‘CLEARLY A SCAM’

Chuck Idelson, a spokesman for National Nurses United, said the lawsuit describes a situation that is “clearly a scam designed to deprive employees for the time they worked.”

“We know that one thing that’s happening in a lot of places is they put pressure on nurses to work past the end point of their shifts to finish up paperwork on patients and not pay overtime for it,” Idelson said.

He said that at hospitals throughout the nation, managers are “putting patients at risk” by making calculated decisions to run short on staff — and thus ensuring that these employees don’t have adequate time to take their breaks.

Idelson said that it is important that “registered nurses get the breaks they need to make sure they’re not fatigued. ... If not, there’s a greater propensity for medical mistakes.”

Kronos Inc., which is headquartered in Chelmsford, Mass., is a leading provider of computerized timekeeping systems. Kronos officials were unavailable for comment.

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