Health & Medicine

Current, ex-Sutter Health employees say company prevented them from taking breaks

At hearings unfolding this week and next week at the California Labor Commissioner's Office, Sutter Health employees testified that they were not able to take meal breaks or rest breaks because of chronic understaffing in their departments at Sutter’s Capitol Pavilion Surgical Center in midtown Sacramento.
At hearings unfolding this week and next week at the California Labor Commissioner's Office, Sutter Health employees testified that they were not able to take meal breaks or rest breaks because of chronic understaffing in their departments at Sutter’s Capitol Pavilion Surgical Center in midtown Sacramento. Sacramento Bee file

In hearings that begin Monday, about 30 current and former employees at Sutter Health’s midtown Sacramento surgery center will accuse the health-care giant of preventing them from taking meal and rest breaks and will ask the California Labor Commissioner to award them back wages and penalties.

The Bee obtained copies of a half-dozen of the Sutter employees’ complaints in which plaintiffs seek anywhere from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars in lost wages and penalties.

In one complaint, registered nurse Kelli Ortiz alleged she was owed roughly $26,084.88 in lost wages and penalties for a period from Feb. 1, 2014, to April 1, 2015. In another, registered nurse Mary Jensen sought about $7,020 in lost wages and penalties for rest periods and meal breaks she was unable to take.

In a statement, Sutter spokeswoman Nancy Turner said the wage and hour claims were investigated.

"We have reviewed and investigated these particular claims and believe these employees have been paid appropriately," the statement read. "We respect our employees’ rights to pursue their individual claims through the independent review of the California Labor Commissioner."

Twenty Sutter employees have enlisted John Damigos, a former Sutter employee, to help with their cases. Several years ago, Damigos won a wage-and-hour dispute against Sutter with the labor commissioner.

Under California state law, workers are entitled to at least a 30-minute meal break within the first five hours of work and a 10-minute rest break for every four hours they work, said Galen Shimoda, an Elk Grove-based employment attorney.

If managers do not allow the employee the opportunity to take a meal break, he said, the employee must be compensated with one extra hour of pay. That’s called a meal break premium, Shimoda said, and there are similar premiums for violations of rest breaks.

Many companies try to have policies that will help them maintain compliance, Shimoda said, but many factors get in the way: They are managing both hourly workers to whom the law applies and salaried employees who are exempt from it. They are operating vastly different types of facilities. Sometimes, the human resources people at an operation haven’t been trained to manage that aspect of policy.

"Getting everything right is probably just not practicable," he said. "Within these large organizations, you can have one dysfunctional department."

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