Lincoln nurses sue CHI Health, alleging they were not paid proper wages for on-call hours

Seven current and former nurses at St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center in Lincoln have named Catholic Health Initiatives in a federal lawsuit. The nurses allege that they were not paid what they were due under state and federal law for time worked while on call on weeknights, weekends and holidays.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Lincoln.

All of the nurses work for hourly wages, said Kathleen Neary of Lincoln, who filed the suit with fellow Lincoln attorney Vince Powers.

Both state and federal law require employers to pay employees at least the statutory minimum wage for hours worked. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act requires that hourly employees be paid at a rate of 1½ times their regular pay for any time worked beyond 40 hours a week, Neary said.

In the lawsuit, the nurses allege that they did not receive the minimum wage, their regular hourly rate or overtime for services they provided during on-call hours, in violation of state and federal labor laws and of Catholic Health Initiatives’ own policies.

CHI Health officials in Omaha said in a statement Friday that they are aware of the allegations made in the lawsuit.

“CHI Health is looking into all matters raised in that complaint and will handle all appropriately,” officials said. “Because this involves litigation, CHI Health cannot comment on any facts of the matter. CHI Health takes serious(ly) the allegations raised in this complaint, and is committed to full compliance with the law and fair treatment for all of its employees.”

Catholic Health Initiatives — which, after a merger with Dignity Health, is now called CommonSpirit Health — is the parent of CHI Health, which operates St. Elizabeth and other hospitals, clinics and facilities in Nebraska and Iowa.

The nurses, Neary said, “thought long and hard about bringing the lawsuit because they love their jobs, they love taking care of their patients, but they just want what the law requires in terms of pay.”

While on call, the nurses routinely received work-related calls, emails and texts and were required to answer and respond to patient-related matters and occasionally speak with patients.

During the weeks they were on call, according to the suit, their workweeks often exceeded 40 hours when their work at the hospital was combined with the active on-call work they performed.

During the time period in question, according to the lawsuit, CHI’s on-call policies said work “that can be taken care of with a phone call or access to work from home” would be paid at 1½ times the employee’s base pay in 15-minute increments.

The nurses say in the lawsuit that they were not paid according to that policy.

Instead, the nurses allege, they were paid between $2 and $4 an hour for the entire on-call shift, regardless of the time they actually spent working. The nurses are asking to be paid the required rates only for the time they were actively working while on call, not for every minute of on-call time, Neary said.

All worked for one department at the hospital.

But Neary said they believe that many other employees working for different departments at CHI facilities in Nebraska and Iowa were also not properly paid for the on-call hours they worked.

The lawsuit asks the judge to extend the complaint to include “all others similarly situated.” The lawsuit says that group would include all current and former hourly CHI employees who did not receive the “statutory rate of pay and/or agreed upon wages for all active on-call work” from Feb. 6, 2015, to the present.

In addition to St. Elizabeth, the suit lists 16 other CHI-run health care facilities in Nebraska and Iowa.

Under federal law, Neary said, the attorneys would have to move for class-action status to include other nurses affected but not explicitly named in the suit. They must first wait until CHI files an answer to the lawsuit. A judge would then have to certify or deny class-action status.

But Neary said state law includes a provision that appears to let them move ahead with the state claim “on behalf of all employees similarly situated” without formally moving for class-action status.