A series of wage and hour collective actions initially filed in New York and Pennsylvania have begun to swell across the country. Plaintiffs’ attorneys are targeting health care facilities over their alleged failure to comply with meal break rules. Specifically, such suits claim that employers have automatically deducted 30 to 60 minutes of time for employees’ meal periods, even if employees never took the breaks. The plaintiffs allege that by failing to provide unpaid meal periods free of interruptions from work, or by failing to fully compensate the employees for the time they were not relieved of duty, health care facilities have violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and other laws. Because employees can recover for violations that took place as many as three years before suit is filed, damages in these cases can be substantial. Employers may be liable for double the employees’ overtime rate of pay for the unpaid meal breaks that were improperly deducted. In addition, plaintiffs are entitled to recover their attorneys’ fees and costs, which often exceed the actual damages.
Not surprisingly, the Internet has become an effective tool for plaintiffs’ lawyers seeking to identify deep-pocket defendants. Some attorneys have even gone so far as to set up websites to provide information to employees about their investigations of health care employers. (See, e.g., hospitalovertime.com or overtimecases.com.) Such websites have become an easy way for a plaintiffs’ counsel to gather information about a particular health care employer’s practices, reach employees throughout the country, and publicize large settlements in wage and hour lawsuits.
Health care facilities throughout California have experienced a recent wave of wage and hour lawsuits. In 2008, at a time when registered nurses were in high demand and hospitals across the country were struggling financially, California completed implementation of landmark legislation passed almost a decade before, mandating minimum nurse-to-patient ratios. Not surprisingly, the shortage of nurses and other medical professionals has made it increasingly difficult for employers to comply with California laws requiring them to provide employees who work more than six hours with an uninterrupted 30-minute meal period. While many nurses acknowledge that the demands of their positions do not always permit an uninterrupted meal period, they uniformly object to not being compensated when they are unable to take the breaks to which they are legally entitled.
In addition to requiring payment of overtime when an employee works more than 40 hours per week, California law requires overtime pay when an employee works more than eight hours per day. Depending on the length of the shift, California employees who are denied meal periods may be entitled not only to overtime, but also to an additional hour of a “premium wage” for each missed meal period. California law permits employees to seek damages for meal period violations going back three years before suit is filed; but if the same allegations are brought under California’s Unfair Competition Law (Business & Professions Code Section 17200), the statute of limitations is four years.