Joliet Nurses Sue Ascension Health System
Nurses from Joliet, Illinois, are taking their employer to court.
On February 22, 2023, current and former workers in the Chicago suburb brought a federal class action lawsuit against Ascension Health, which owns Saint Joseph Medical Center, for wage theft.
Attorneys and representatives with the Illinois Nurses Association (INA) claim that Ascension Health has withheld millions of dollars worth of compensation in wages, paid time off (PTO), and other benefits.
Nurses’ allegations of wage theft
Nurses and other workers claim that the hospital failed to pay them correctly, including bonus shift incentives and overtime, even before the pandemic. They say that they brought up their concerns repeatedly. However, they have not been addressed.
Four nurses are named plaintiffs in the complaint.
One former interventional radiology nurse, Desiree Lehr, is suing for over $2,000 in incentive shift pay. An additional $726 owed to her was discovered during the investigation of this lawsuit.
Current psychiatric nurse, Amanda Woolcock, alleges in the complaint that she was supposed to receive a raise in July 2022 per her contract. When it didn’t show up on her paycheck, she contacted Human Resources (HR). She was told someone would look into it, but her rate never increased.
Nurse Jennifer Kochniarczyk, was supposed to receive paid time-off from her extended illness bank (EIB) during recovery from an injury. She claims her PTO was applied incorrectly and she is owed approximately $2,714 and 41 hours of improperly used PTO.
Erin Lindy, a former med-surg nurse at Saint Joseph was paid inaccurately over several months because the “timekeeping system was down nationwide.” Based on her own records, she believes she should have earned 38.8 hours of PTO, but was only compensated for 19.18.
The lawsuit alleges “systemic compensation problems” at Ascension Health. It also suggests that the health system has engaged in “improper cost-cutting measures.”
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Nurses seek resolution
The nurses and other class members are seeking the following:
All unpaid wages and compensation
Damages of 5% of all unpaid compensation for each month in which they were not fully compensated
Other relief as deemed just by the court
The suit also asks the court to order a full accounting of undercompensation and errors claimed by employees since 2013 and require Ascension to provide a plan to accurately pay staff on a timely basis going forward.
Attorney William Bloom represents the nurses in their wage theft complaint against Ascension Health.
He says that wage theft is a significant problem. “I think Americans are understanding that more and more,” Bloom told CBS Chicago. “I think we’re seeing a greater sense of working people understanding themselves as being exploited by their bosses.”
A profitable non-profit
St. Louis-based Ascension is the nation’s fourth-largest health system. Currently, it boasts 139 hospitals in 14 states. A non-profit, tax-exempt health system, Ascension Health, is supposed to benefit the community. Yet, a recent article published in the New York Times titled “How a sprawling hospital chain ignited its own staffing crisis” claims that Ascension puts profits before patients. In other words, by cutting staff and failing to offer better pay, it essentially caused its staffing shortage.
According to the class action suit brought by the nurses in Joliet, Ascension has cut nursing staff by 23% since 2018. However, data published on Ascension Health’s website say that the number of full-time equivalent nurses (FTEs) at St. Joseph in Joliet has grown from 4.72 in 2018 to 5.02 in 2021.
In an open letter penned in February, U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin questioned Ascension CEO Joseph Impicciche about its business practices.
Source: Senator Baldwin’s website
She highlights recent investigations in Milwaukee, WI, where Ascension operates 24 hospitals. News journalists there published reports about “disruptions to patient care, long wait times in the ED, delayed surgeries, and staff concerns about patient safety.” Senator Baldwin has questioned why the health system is holding onto $18 billion in cash reserves rather than “increasing pay and improving working conditions for its burned out and overextended health care workforce.”
Statements regarding the wage theft allegations
On February 23, 2023, 11 nurses hand-delivered a copy of the complaint to St. Joe executives. A statement on the St. Joe’s Union Twitter page said, “The lawsuit alleges Ascension failed to pay nurses for overtime, PTO and scheduled raises. We’re asking executives to do the right thing and pay us what we are owed!”
Amanda Woolcock, a plaintiff in the case, told CBS News that the nurses hoped the hospital would resolve their compensation issues before now. “We didn’t want it to go this far,” Woolcock said, “but we’re at that point where nothing’s been done for months – nine months. And it’s not just me – it’s a bunch of nurses.”
In a statement shared with Becker’s Hospital Review, Ascension said, “While Ascension does not generally comment on active litigation, we pride ourselves on paying every associate a fair wage… We are looking into the issue raised.”
Ascension Health in the headlines
Prior to the wage theft accusations, Ascension Health has also made headlines for concerns over unsafe staffing.
In October, nurses at Ascension Saint Joseph hospital, known locally as “St. Joe’s,” were suspended after calling attention to dangerous staffing shortages in the emergency department.
The Illinois Nurses Association (INA) executive director Julia Bartmes told a local news station that the unit should have 14 nurses. Yet, only four were scheduled — including a charge nurse who is not supposed to have a patient assignment.
The nurses who voiced concerns were reportedly escorted out by security and locked out of the hospital.
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