Utah nurse says Intermountain Healthcare cheats its nurses out of lunch and pay

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "If a nurse cannot be safely and completely relieved of duty, she must not be relieved of pay," said Brandon King, 43. He said he was fired a year ago after 13 years with Intermountain Healthcare for complaining internally about the pay deductions. King doesn't think it's fair that his former employer docked nurses a half hour's pay each 12-hour shift for a lunch break they often don't take. King took his complaint to the U.S. Department of Labor, which has opened an investigation of Intermountain.

Brandon King says his former employer, Intermountain Healthcare, unfairly docked nurses a half-hour’s pay each 12-hour shift for meals, whether or not they were allowed to take a break.

Many nurses, he maintains, have to eat at their desks or on the run because their jobs preclude them from being relieved of duties and getting away for 30 minutes of uninterrupted meal time.

“Nurses have a very difficult job, and they deserve to be treated with dignity and empathy from their employers,” said King, 43. He said he was fired a year ago, after 13 years with Intermountain, for complaining internally about the automatic pay deductions.

“If a nurse cannot be safely and completely relieved of duty, she must not be relieved of pay,” he said. “This is the minimum [requirement] of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).”

King took his complaint to the U.S. Department of Labor, which confirmed that its wage and hour division has opened an investigation of Intermountain, the state’s largest nongovernment employer, with more than 37,000 employees in 2015.

“No other information is available until the investigation is complete,” said Juan Rodriguez, a Labor Department spokesman in Dallas.

Intermountain spokesman Daron Cowley said the health care provider has been contacted by the Labor Department about its meal-break policies.

“Intermountain is fully cooperating with the review and has provided information concerning its policies and practices,” he said. “Intermountain complies with federal and state statutes and regulations regarding payment for hours worked. Intermountain is grateful for our dedicated caregivers and has policies in place to pay caregivers for all the work they provide for the benefit of patients.”

Cowley declined to discuss the specifics of King’s complaint.

King said Intermountain nurses can request reimbursement for incomplete, interrupted or missed meal breaks. But he questions putting the onus on nurses for fixing incorrect paychecks, and contends Intermountain discouraged nurses from pursuing such payments.  

His accusations are not unique to Intermountain or hospitals.

Last year, nurses in Houston and Dallas contested similar policies at hospitals in those two Texas cities. Houston attorney Galvin Kennedy filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of 1,000 nurses against Methodist Health System. He also represented nurse Meghan Stewart and 4,000 of her colleagues in a federal lawsuit against Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston.

An Eagle Mountain resident, King graduated in nursing from the University of Utah. He said he spent his 13 years at Intermountain in the emergency department, thoracic intensive care unit and the artificial heart program. He now is the charge nurse at Mountain Point Medical Center in Lehi.

The “meals and rest period” policy at IASIS Healthcare, which owns Mountain Point, also has a provision for the half-hour pay deduction, King noted. But he said it specifies that “if an hourly nonexempt employee does not receive 30 consecutive minutes of uninterrupted time, it will be considered time worked and will be paid.”

“Answering a page or a beeper, for example, or a work-related question from a supervisor is considered to be an interruption,” the policy added.

Over the course of his career, King said, he has concluded that nurses often are exploited. Although federal law provides protections, he believes they often are not implemented or followed in practice largely because most nurses are female.

“Professions dominated by men — policemen, paramedics and firefighters — receive fair treatment under the FLSA, but professions that are dominated by women like nursing do not,” he said. “This is true across the nation and it adds up to millions of dollars stolen from nurses every year.”