Education

University of Iowa nurses, others sue regents for 'illegal' pay practices

Lawsuit seeks 'liquidated damages for the untimely payment of wages'

Melinda Myers poses for a portrait after her nursing shift at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, Iowa, on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Melinda Myers poses for a portrait after her nursing shift at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, Iowa, on Wednesday, July 31, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — A group of University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics nurses and other staffers have sued the state Board of Regents after the university dismissed their concerns about how the institution is compensating them for extra shifts and hours worked.

“UIHC maintains a policy and practice of not paying these adjustments in the pay period when they are earned or within 12 days thereafter as required by Iowa law,” according to the lawsuit filed Monday in Johnson County District Court. “Instead, these health care workers are routinely not paid their wage ‘adjustments’ until one or two months after the period in which they were earned.”

The lawsuit is seeking class-action status on behalf of current, future and former health care providers who worked at UIHC in the last two years — the time since Iowa lawmakers in 2017 stripped collective bargaining rights from most public sector unions and UIHC changed its extra-time pay practices.

The class likely includes over 2,000 individuals, according to the lawsuit, which argues the group is “so numerous that joinder of all members is impractical.”

The lawsuit comes after The Gazette earlier this month reported on UIHC health care providers’ concerns with how they’re compensated for working extra shifts. Cedar Rapids-based lawyer Nathan Willems took notice of the issue and offered to represent the employees in court.

The three plaintiffs named in the lawsuit include Melinda Myers and John Eivins, both UIHC staff nurses; and Barbara Stanerson, a UIHC physical therapist.

They contend that although UIHC nurses and many other health care providers are paid a salary on a monthly basis, they operate as hourly employees and can earn “adjustments” for working extra hours, overnight, weekends or longer shifts.

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Since the state stripped collective bargaining rights two years ago and unionized UIHC workers lost much of their negotiated contract, the hospital has changed when and how it pays for those “adjustments.”

An attorney for the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 3,800 UIHC health care workers, last November sent the university a letter highlighting what the union perceives as a law violation and urging the UI to cease the practice.

UIHC human resources responded by rebuffing the concerns, arguing it’s not breaking any laws and calculates the “extra time “after the end of a six-week period, paying up in the next available paycheck.

UI spokesman Tom Moore told The Gazette earlier this month that because UIHC nurses are salaried — and not hourly — they are not entitled to overtime pay.

“Although not required by their contract or law, we choose to pay extra compensation to those who take on extra hours,” he wrote in an email.

The UI did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

This dispute over how to compensate nurses and others for working extra hours comes as the 811-bed hospital is slammed with near-record patient totals, crowded inpatient rooms and a spread-thin nursing contingent asked daily to take on extra shifts. In recent years, UIHC had pulled in hundreds of traveling nurses to fill gaps — paying them a premium compared with those on staff.

The hospital has worked to curtail its reliance on agency nurses as it ran into budget troubles two years ago. And union officials told The Gazette they suspect the university has saved millions by delaying adjustment pay.

Myers, according to the lawsuit, worked extra hours May 6 — during a pay period that ended May 31 — but was not compensated for that extra work until Aug. 1, or 87 days after she worked the extra hours and 62 days after the end of the pay period.

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In addition to its request for class-action status, the lawsuit is seeking a judgment in favor of the health care workers awarding them “liquidated damages for the untimely payment of wages,” plus attorneys fees, costs and interest.

It also seeks an injunction requiring UIHC to “cease its illegal practices.”

• Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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