Health & Medicine

Sutter RN manager testifies boss yelled if break payments threw budget 'out of whack'

Patients arrive at Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento.
Patients arrive at Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento. Sacramento Bee file

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In testimony this week before the California Labor Commissioner, a first-line nurse manager at Sutter’s Capitol Pavilion Surgery Center said she told her director that she didn’t have enough staff to give nurses breaks for meal and rest periods, yet the director dressed her down whenever premium pay for the missed breaks threw the center’s budget “out of whack.”

Teri Lancaster, still an assistant nurse manager at the surgery center, is seeking premium pay for missed meal and rest periods. Her case and that of Mary Jean Jensen, an assistant nurse manager who left Sutter in March, were heard Wednesday in the Labor Commissioner’s Sacramento office. The two managers are among roughly 30 current and former hourly employees from the Capitol Pavilions facility testifying this week and next.

In a statement sent to The Sacramento Bee last week, Sutter Health spokesperson Nancy Turner stated: “We take all employee concerns, including wage-and-hour claims, seriously. We have reviewed and investigated these particular claims and believe these employees have been paid appropriately. We respect our employees’ rights to pursue their individual claims through the independent review of the California Labor Commissioner.”

The Bee reached out to Jeannie Humphreys, the nursing supervisor whom Lancaster and others named in their testimony, and Humphreys said she was unaware of the missed meal and rest breaks until Sutter management undertook an internal investigation of employee complaints. Premium pay, she said, is a given if employees were forced to miss meal breaks. By law, they are entitled to it, said Humphreys, who left her position at the surgery center in August.

Under California law, hourly employees must be given the opportunity to take a 10-minute break for each four hours that they work and an uninterrupted 30-minute lunch within the first five hours of arriving at work and a second 30-minute lunch when the work period exceeds 10 hours. Employees may waive one lunch period a day.

If management cannot provide the break, workers must be given an hour of pay as compensation. This payment is known as a meal or rest-break premium.

Lancaster testified that Sutter had an independent consultant evaluate nurse staffing levels at the Capitol Pavilion facility, and the consultant set what she considered to be unrealistic benchmarks for the time it would take nurses to complete various tasks.

She said she told Humphreys that she was having trouble getting nurses out for their breaks because there was not enough staff but that Humphreys told her that Sutter had spent millions of dollars for this evaluation and they had to make it work.

“I would basically say we don’t have the staff do the amount of cases we have and get breaks in on time,” Lancaster said.

At one point, Lancaster said, Humphreys said she would ask an administrative committee for approval to add nurses, but she later told Lancaster that the committee had said no. Humphreys said she had agreed that some of the consultant’s benchmarks could not be met and that she advised Lancaster to staff to meet patient needs.

“She was never told that she had to staff with so many nurses,” Humphreys said. “Now, if nurses called in sick or she didn’t have any, she really needed to come to me at that point. She never did, not according to what she’s talking about. That never happened.”

Lancaster said she had computer software that tallied work hours for nurses each day, and when the total for the week was on track to exceed what was allocated, she had to reduce staffing on the next day’s shift to make up for being over budget.

If she wasn’t able to get nurses relieved for their breaks and they charged a pay premium, Lancaster said, Humphreys would yell at her: “Why didn’t they get their breaks? You’re responsible for this. Now they’re charging us for missed breaks. Our budget’s out of whack.”

Humphreys said that yelling was not her management style and that she did not discuss that aspect of the budget with Lancaster. Rather, she said, they discussed supplies and other budget issues. In staff and management meetings, Humphreys said, she always urged that staff be paid premiums if they were forced to work through breaks.

When Sutter’s outside counsel, Molly Kaban, asked whether it was inappropriate for the nursing director to ask about why employees had missed breaks, Lancaster said she thought it was because Humphreys already knew the answer. While Humphreys didn’t specifically say she couldn’t allow nurses to request premium pay for missed meal or rest periods, she said she felt the intent was there.

Humphreys said she feels that employees are making her the scapegoat at the hearings and that none of these allegations came up when Sutter conducted its investigation while she was still in the company’s employ.

In Monday’s hearings, registered nurse Pilar Tallent testified that Humphreys had yelled at her when she requested a meal break premium, asking her whether she couldn’t just eat at her desk. RN Kathleen Beckley said she heard about the exchange between Tallent and Humphreys and didn’t file for premium pay because she didn’t want to be berated for it.

Humphreys said she never had such an exchange with Tallent and that she wouldn’t tell her to eat in a patient-care area because doing so would violate Sutter policy. Tallent could have reported her to HR for saying that, Humphreys said.

Asked why at least four employees have said her harsh demeanor and words played a role in keeping them from taking breaks, Humphreys said she didn’t understand it because she was not a direct supervisor for any of them.

In her labor commission complaint, Lancaster is seeking tens of thousands of dollars in meal- and rest-period premiums. She said there were 411 days when she waived her first meal period but had to work extended hours without a second meal break. In addition, she requested 249 rest period premiums.

Under questioning from Kaban, Lancaster said she did request some meal pay premiums herself but only enough to ensure she would not raise the ire of Humphreys.

Jensen is requesting an hour’s premium pay for 64 meal periods when she worked a 12-hour overnight shift but was not provided relief to take her second break. In her complaint, she also requested payment for 26 rest period premiums, but under questioning, she said she could not recall how she had determined which dates she was owed rest-period premiums.

Jensen also listed her pay rate as $78 an hour in her complaint seeking more than $25,000 in premiums and penalties and did not bring pay records that could verify it. In testimony, a Sutter HR manager provided testimony that her pay had ranged from $68.83 an hour to $76.67 an hour during her claim period.

In the hearings, Deputy Labor Commissioner Stephen Franck has worked to unearth details from each employee about their complaints but has occasionally met with workers who cannot recall facts and do not have any evidence to verify their claims.

To verify her claim for rest-period premiums, Lancaster brought three months’ worth of sheets showing when nurses had logged in and out for meal and rest breaks. Her claim, however, spanned a three-year period. When Franck asked why she hadn’t brought all sheets available, she said the cost would have been exorbitant.

In these times, Franck has paused to educate employees on the process, noting that his deliberations are based on only the evidence and testimony he receives during the hearings.

On Wednesday, Franck continued seeking information about practices and policies in the surgery center. He asked Jensen, for instance, to explain the policy for rest periods for her nurses in the pre-operating and post-operating units.

Jensen told him that she didn’t understand what the policy was, that she read one thing in Sutter’s policy statement but was told another by the nursing director.

“I was told by Jeannie Humphreys that nurses all voted, and instead of getting two 15-minute breaks, they voted on putting them together in one,” she said.

Jensen said she pointed out to Humphreys that the Sutter policy was to provide a break for every four hours of work but that Humphreys said they should continue with the established practice. Later, Jensen said, she ran into HR operations manager Michael Gains in the hallway and asked him about it. It was then, she said, that he and she met with Humphreys and he told them that all staff should be adhering to Sutter policy. That policy is also a state mandate.

Humphreys said she did not know that nurses in the pre-operating and recovery units were taking only one 15-minute morning break until Jensen mentioned it to her. She said she told her to ask Gains about it, and they later discussed it with him, getting his counsel to adhere to Sutter policy.

Both Jensen and Lancaster said that the staffing levels improved after employees filed complaints with the California Labor Commission, but Gains said in testimony earlier this week that the two things were not related. He said Sutter made staffing changes following a settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor on another matter.

The Sutter employee hearings will continue this week and next, and Franck said he will not begin issuing decisions until 15 days after the final hearing.

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