Dozens of hourly nurses from California have filed wage and hour claims against a network of hospitals and medical centers near Palm Springs.
Nurses Demand $3M In Wages From Tenet
In state government documents obtained by the Desert Sun, 55 nursing workers at facilities owned by Tenet Healthcare accuse their employer of withholding overtime pay and stiffing them for missed work breaks. Many of the complaints, filed with California’s Department of Industrial Relations between 2015 and 2016, claim more than $60,000 in unpaid back wages. As a group, the nurses say they are owed over $3 million.
Tenet Healthcare is now the third largest privately-owned hospital company in the United States, operating around 470 outpatient clinics, along with nearly 80 acute-care hospitals and 20 surgical hospitals. Headquartered in Texas, the company has come under fire for acquiring existing healthcare facilities and then quickly reducing their staff numbers to untenable levels. That’s precisely what happened at three Tenet-owned facilities in California, according to Hank Goodrow.
Staffing Shortages In California, Workers Say
A nurse at Desert Regional Medical Center, Goodrow says his employer owes him over $78,000 for unpaid wages earned between 2012 and 2014. Speaking to reporters in a recent interview, Goodrow said that repeated reductions in staffing had forced unreasonable workloads onto the shoulders of the facility’s nurses. Employees routinely worked through breaks, Goodrow claims, while toiling through extra hours that went without compensation.
Understaffing is a major problem in hospitals across the country, but these allegations are particularly ironic in California. In 2004, the State joined a select group of jurisdictions that actively regulate staffing in hospitals. California, though, is the only State to have set a minimum nurse-to-patient ratio – a provision that has been linked to lower rates of patient adverse events.
In most cases, California’s labor laws are more generous to workers than federal law. Alongside a weekly overtime standard, under which employees are entitled to overtime for any hours worked over 40 in a week, the State entitles the majority of workers to daily overtime pay. This daily overtime should come into effect after working 8 consecutive hours in a single day. State law also ensures that most employees receive staggered breaks during the workday, or receive extra pay for working through their breaks.
Hospital Staffing “Trends In Positive Direction”
Tenet is attempting to fix the staffing problem, according to spokesperson Rich Ramhoff. Since the beginning of 2016, the company has hired 197 new nurses to shore up the staffing shortages at three California locations: Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, JFK Memorial Hospital in Indio and Hi-Desert Medical Center in Joshua Tree. Hank Goodrow says his employer’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. “They did increase their staffing,” he told the Desert Sun, “which is very good. They’re going out of their way to try and offer breaks.”
More work needs to be done, however. In an interview last month, Michele Finney, CEO for the three California hospitals, told reporters that Tenet still hasn’t solved the staffing issue. “We are not where we want to be,” she said, while noting that Tenet was “trending in a positive direction.” Alongside the complaints of nurses, Finney’s statements appear to suggest that understaffing has been a long-standing issue at Tenet-operated facilities.
Tenet Settled $85M Back Wages Suit In 2009
Tenet’s past legal entanglements seem to support that theory. In 2009, the company agreed to pay $85 million in back wages over allegations that Tenet-operated facilities had actively circumvented a change to California’s overtime law. In a class action lawsuit, Tenet employees accused their employer of avoiding overtime obligations by lowering hourly wages once a worker hit 8 hours in the workday, the Orange County Register reports.
While the company technically paid overtime for those extra hours, the net compensation given to employees remained the same. In fact, the suit alleged that Tenet used five separate pay rates, which depended on the duration of a worker’s shift.