Wilkes-Barre Hospital eyes appeal of nurse OT decision

Attorneys for Wilkes-Barre General Hospital are seeking to appeal a federal judge’s ruling relating to a class-action lawsuit that claims the hospital improperly denied overtime payments to employees.

The lawsuit, filed last year by Michele Sakalas on behalf of herself and others, alleges the hospital manipulated the employees’ schedules to avoid paying overtime.

The case focuses on differences in rules relating to overtime time payments in a 40-hour, one-week pay period, compared to an 80-hour, two-week pay period.

The hospital, which is owned by Community Health Systems, had a policy of paying overtime only if an employee works more than 80 hours in a two-week pay period. Sakalas, a licensed practical nurse, says she would be scheduled to work 32 hours in one week, then 48 hours in the second week, thereby allowing the hospital to avoid paying overtime.

The lawsuit claims that policy violates Pennsylvania’s Minimum Wage Act.

Sidney Steinberg, an attorney for the hospital, filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing the Minimum Wage Act does not allow for lawsuits relating to overtime.

The hospital also sought to enjoin the union that represents nurses, arguing it should be held liable for any damages because the union approved the overtime policy in question as part of a collective bargaining agreement.

U.S. District Judge Robert Mariani recently denied both motions.

Mariani acknowledged the minimum-wage law does not explicitly cover disputes regarding overtime. He noted numerous prior appellate court rulings that have allowed such claims under the law, however.

Mariani also said the hospital could not enjoin the union, finding that it was attempting to attach liability by claiming the union breached its duty to fairly represent the nurses.

“Defendants do not have standing to assert a breach of the duty of fair representation … because the duty is owed by the union to employees, not the employers,” Mariani said.

Steinberg is now seeking to appeal Mariani’s ruling to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Mariani must grant him permission to do so, however, because it involves a legal issue in a case that is unresolved.

In his motion, Steinberg argues the judge should permit the appeal because it involves a legal interpretation of the Minimum Wage Act. An appellate court ruling on the matter would resolve the case, either for the plaintiff or defendant, without the necessity of going to trial.

Attorney Peter Winebrake, who represents Sakalas, filed court papers opposing the motion. Winebrake contends the legal issue in question has previously been decided by other courts; therefore an appeal would not advance the case.