COLUMBIA, S.C. -- While trying to help a patient, Mildred Shatto took a nasty fall seven years ago at a Florence hospital where she worked as a nurse anesthetist.
The spill bruised one of her eyes, injured her shoulder and both her arms, and damaged her spinal cord. And she developed paralysis on one side.
After she filed for workers’ compensation to help pay $160,000 in medical costs, Shatto was told she was not entitled to the benefits normally given employees at McLeod Regional Medical Center. The hospital said she was not an employee but an independent contractor, a class of worker not covered by workers’ compensation through the hospital.
After a myriad of legal battles that started in 2007, state courts agreed within the last year that Shatto was a McLeod employee and entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.
Shatto is not alone in battling an employer for benefits denied independent contractors.
Earlier this summer, a dozen exotic dancers went to court contending that they, too, had been denied benefits by strip clubs that say they use contract workers, not employees.
Under the independent contractor classification, companies do not have to buy workers’ compensation insurance or even pay the wages earned by regular employees.
Columbia attorney Kenneth Berger said workers suffer when their employers use them as full-time workers but call them independent contractors.
“When an injured employee is misclassified as an independent contractor, it can lead to workers being denied medical and financial benefits that the law intended them to receive,’’ said Berger, who was not involved in the Shatto legal proceeding.
In Shatto’s case, the S.C. Supreme Court said last December that she was a McLeod employee, not an independent contractor as the hospital system contended. In June, the S.C. Court of Appeals ruled that her injuries entitled her to workers’ compensation.
Shatto was not available for comment. But she finally has help, said one of her attorneys, who said Shatto did not have health insurance.
“This means the world for her,’’ said Columbia lawyer Blake Hewitt. “For so many people, the valuable part of the workers compensation act is that their medical treatment is paid for. This was just a parade of horrible things for this woman. Her injuries turned out to be very severe.’’
Walter Barefoot, an attorney for McLeod Regional, said he could not comment on the Shatto case.
However, court records show McLeod contended Shatto was not an employee because she had been hired by another company that did business with the hospital.
Typically, a true independent contractor is distinguished from a company employee by a handful of factors. Those include whether a company has ‘‘control’’ over a worker, telling that person what to do and supplying equipment the worker needs to do the job.
In Shatto’s case, she reported to a McLeod Regional supervisor each day she was at work, used equipment and clothing provided by the hospital, and received a new employee packet saying she was an employee, the Supreme Court said in its Dec. 18, 2013, ruling.
“McLeod Regional controlled Shatto from the smallest things, such as where to park her car, to the carrying out of her important duties as a nurse anesthetist,’’ the Supreme Court said. “Shatto began work each day by reporting to a McLeod Regional supervisor who directed her activities throughout the day.’’
‘The right thing to do’
Topless dancers in Columbia and Greenville hope they win similar recognition.
About a dozen exotic dancers are suing strip clubs in Richland and Greenville counties, claiming they are employees of the clubs and not independent contractors as the clubs claim. The dancers say they are entitled to back pay, in addition to the customer tips they receive for performing. Because their legal challenge is a class action suit, as many as 1,750 dancers could collect back wages if the dozen strippers win the case.
The Platinum Plus nightclubs do not pay dancers a wage, instead allowing them to earn money from tips, the dancers claim in their lawsuit heard this past summer in U.S. District Court in Columbia. But the clubs control when the dancers come to work and what they perform, the dancers say. The clubs also require dancers to pay part of their tips for the right to perform at the busineses, they contend.
The clubs deny the dancers are employees, saying they don’t control when they come to work or what they perform, which makes the women independent.
Kaleigh Dittus, a Lexington County dancer who initiated the suit, said it has been difficult for her to fight for employee status. Other dancers are scared and have told her to back away from her legal fight, fearing they will lose their jobs or get paid less in tips, she said.
But Dittus said she will press ahead with the case.
“A lot of girls hate me because they are misinformed and they are scared,’’ Dittus said. “I know it is more than the right thing to do.’’
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