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News / Business / Clark County Business

PeaceHealth sued by former worker, accused of wage and hours violations

By Chrissy Booker, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 5, 2024, 6:03am

A former employee of PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver has filed a class-action lawsuit against the health system for alleged wage and hour violations, including failing to provide employees with meal and rest breaks.

The lawsuit was filed Feb. 27 in Clark County Superior Court by labor law firm Ackermann and Tilajef, on behalf of Harmony Nelson. No members of PeaceHealth management are named in the case.

The suit alleges that during her employment, Nelson, along with other current and former PeaceHealth employees, were not given required 30-minute meal breaks or 10-minute rest breaks due to understaffing. It also claims PeaceHealth failed to compensate employees for these missed breaks and did not track when an employee missed a break, in violation of the Washington Industrial Welfare Act.

“The defendant intentionally, willfully, recklessly or negligently understaffed its hospital as a cost-saving measure and, as a direct and predictable result, required, suffered or permitted the plaintiff and the class to work through rest and meal periods without compensation or risk patient safety,” the lawsuit states.

When contacted by The Columbian about the allegations, PeaceHealth spokeswoman Debra Carnes replied: “PeaceHealth values all employees and takes pride in being a top employer in Washington. Out of respect for the legal process, we are unable to comment on litigation.”

Employees are seeking compensation for missed, late and interrupted breaks, and overtime; double damages (twice the amount of withheld wages) for unpaid overtime; and attorney fees and costs. Additionally, they are asking for an injunction that would require PeaceHealth to maintain wage records and records of missed break periods for employees.

Included in the class action are respiratory care practitioners, licensed practical nurses, surgical technologists, diagnostic radiologic technologists, cardiovascular invasive specialists and nursing assistants who worked for PeaceHealth hospitals in Washington over the last three years and through the date of the court’s certification of the class.

Nelson, the only named complainant, worked for PeaceHealth as a registered nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit until Jan. 24, 2022. Court documents state Nelson typically worked three 12-hour shifts (36 hours a week), plus occasional overtime, and was paid an hourly wage. The documents claim PeaceHealth was “severely understaffed” during Nelson’s time of employment, and she worked through her meal and rest breaks without compensation.

Under Washington law, employees cannot work more than five hours without a designated meal break of at least 30 minutes. A second meal break is required for shifts longer than 11 hours. Rest breaks of at least 10 minutes are required two hours from the start of a shift.

The Washington Minimum Wage Act requires employees to be paid for regular hours and overtime hours. Employees cannot work longer than 40 hours a week unless they receive compensation for excess hours worked.

Last month, PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center settled with the U.S. Department of Justice after allegations it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide a sign language interpreter for a deaf patient.

The Department of Justice announced PeaceHealth will pay a $75,000 fine to the patient, who was hospitalized in March 2020. It will also pay the department $10,000 for violating the ADA.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.