Nurses pursue class action after payroll foulup at Eastern Oregon hospitals


Nothing spoils a Sweet 16 quite like illegally garnished wages. In October, LaRae Ernst had to scrap plans for her daughter’s surprise birthday party because her employer, CommonSpirit Health, had withheld almost $800 from her paycheck without asking. Now the emergency room nurse is part of a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of 2,000 Oregon healthcare workers who also had money taken from their paychecks without permission. Under state law, it’s illegal to withhold wages without an employee’s permission.

Ernst and three other nurses, all represented by Oregon Nurses Association (ONA), filed the suit in Marion County Circuit Court in February against CommonSpirit, the Chicago-headquartered healthcare non-profit that owns Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg and St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton. The lawsuit asks a judge to order CommonSpirit to determine how much money each employee is actually owed, pay those wages, and pay any statutory penalties for withholding money from checks without their permission.

In October, after CommonSpirit learned it had been the target of a ransomware attack, it temporarily shut off the payroll software it uses in Oregon to track workers’ hours. On the first payday following the outage, CommonSpirit issued checks based on estimates of each employee’s hours worked, Ernst said. Some workers missed pay and some were overpaid.

CommonSpirit tried to fix the errors in a “game of whack a mole,” said ONA spokesperson Kevin Mealy: It issued supplementary checks to underpaid workers, then realized those payments also were wrong. Some of the extra checks were still short. Others resulted in new overpayments.

In a series of increasingly demanding emails, CommonSpirit asked overpaid workers to give back any extra money they’d received, Ernst said. But it refused to provide the workers with detailed accounting of how it had calculated the money they owed.

As of June, CommonSpirit still hasn’t provided that information. The health system did not return requests for comment.

“A lot of us were saying, ‘Fine, I’ll pay it back if I owe it, but I want to see where it went,’” Ernst said. “Then the last paycheck of November, they just took the money out with no prior consent. … I had been planning a huge surprise Sweet 16 party for my daughter’s birthday. I had vendors I’d already booked and deposits I had put down. I had to call and cancel everything because my paycheck was almost $800 short.”

Many of her coworkers were hit harder, she said. Some workers worried they couldn’t afford groceries and Christmas gifts because of the shorted checks, she said. Others told her they couldn’t pay their bills that month.

“Honestly what fired me up the most was seeing people crying in the lunchroom on break because they didn’t know how they’d make their car payment,” Ernst said. “People should not be coming into work and crying.”

Ernst and other nurses notified ONA about the missing payments, and the union helped them seek a legal solution. Ernst agreed to be named in the lawsuit to stand up for workers who were wronged.

Mealy, the ONA spokesperson, said the CommonSpirit in March did provide account worksheets for two workers, as an example of how it did its math. But the calculations were wrong. For example, one worksheet showed that the company withheld money for one nurse’s special certification, which usually provides a bonus payment. ONA hasn’t met with CommonSpirit on this matter since then, as both sides await the ruling in the lawsuit.

A judge is currently deciding where the case will be heard. CommonSpirit attorneys say the case should be heard in federal court because the total amount of requested damages exceeds $5 million. In court filings, the health network claimed it would cost $3.3 million just to figure out how much every employee is owed.

But nurses’ attorneys dispute those claims. They’ve submitted testimony from an expert accountant that estimated the total accounting cost would be $184,500 to $271,500, and they’ve asked the case stay in Marion County Circuit Court.


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