On Thursday at San Francisco General Hospital, The SEIU 1021 labor union, which represents nurses who work for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, announced that three of its members are suing the city and its Health Department for tens of thousands of hours’ worth of alleged wage theft.
According to the union, due to chronic understaffing, registered nurses work extremely long hours, often skip meal breaks, and forgo vacations and family time to ensure their patients are adequately cared for and meet the demands of their employer. Yet, they do not receive full overtime pay.
The nurses are filing this lawsuit to make clear that nurses who work overtime should be properly compensated for their work, and they say that the city of San Francisco should hire more nurses, filling large vacancies across departments.
Many nurses at San Francisco General Hospital are considered “dual status,” meaning that their normal hours fall under permanent status, but overtime is logged as “per diem” hours.
In many cases, these nurses are permanent employees, but the extra hours they work are logged not under overtime, but as “per diem” employment. Because they are registered under two payroll codes, the overtime pay does not take into account the fact that they worked the initial 40 hours as a permanent employee, and they do not receive full overtime pay. Although nurses are completing nearly identical work under each payroll code, because it is between two payroll codes, they are not being compensated for overtime.
The lawsuit argues that any nurse who works over 40 hours a week, should get time-and-a-half overtime pay. Instead, under “per diem” pay, they are receiving time-and-a-quarter.
Brent Andrew, the spokesman for San Francisco General, says that it has been “difficult for hospitals across the country to find permanent nursing talent.” He adds that he “does not believe we are understaffed, and believes we are staffed to the level we need to be that is called for in our licensing.” He thinks nurses are compensated based on the contract they have agreed to, and does not think San Francisco General is straying outside the bounds of the contract.
The SEIU says the Health Department is using this “per diem” categorization to short-change workers — and, additionally, hide the full amount of staff that are truly needed.
The union alleges that this is a scheme perpetrated by the city to budget for low employee costs, then add extra hours “per diem,” which does not involve pension and benefit costs.
The city has, routinely, vastly overspent its budget projections this way. In fiscal year 2016-17 for example, the Department of Public Health budgeted $16.9 million toward “per diem” nurses. It paid out $58.4 million. In fiscal year 2017-18, it budgeted $17.3 million and paid out $62.3 million.
Aaron Cramer, a 12-year nurse at San Francisco General, was one of several who appeared at Thursday’s rally during his break. He came to protest” wage theft and understaffing … Not only are they shortchanging us, but also our patients and citizens of San Francisco.”
When Cramer worked in the ICU last year he had to make the difficult choice of holding the hand of a patient while he died or leaving him to run to another patient who was bleeding out in a transfusion. “I found that to be completely unacceptable, because we didn’t have the staff to accommodate the number of patients we have.” Cramer says “nurses constantly have these dilemmas because of understaffing.”
The suit says that staffing and overtime practices being employed by DPH is illegal and dangerous for patients and frontline healthcare workers.