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State-employed registered nurses sue for unpaid overtime

By DAVID PITTJuly 16, 2019

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A group of nurses working at Iowa prisons and other state-run facilities who have sued the state and Gov. Kim Reynolds claim hundreds of state-employed nurses have not been paid overtime for two years.

The lawsuit filed in state court on June 28 seeks a court order to force the state to pay the overtime going forward, recover unpaid past compensation, and to cover liquidated damages, attorney fees and court costs.

The nurses said Monday the state is violating the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and the Iowa Wage Payment Collection Law.

Five women filed the lawsuit but they are seeking class-action status on behalf of as many as 700 registered nurses who work for state agencies including prisons and mental health facilities, their attorney, Bruce Stoltze Jr., said.

He said the state stopped paying overtime to the registered nurses in July 2017 after the Republican-run Legislature and former Gov. Terry Branstad earlier that year passed and signed into law a measure that stripped bargaining rights away from many state workers for everything but base pay. Previously workers could negotiate contract language on overtime pay and work hours.

The nurses said they were told when the law took effect the state no longer was required to pay overtime to registered nurses because as educated professionals they could be exempted from federal overtime requirements.

They said the state continues to refuse to pay them time and a half for overtime or give them compensatory time even though they are required to work beyond 40 hours a week. The women said RNs are paid their regular hourly wage while licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants working alongside them often performing the same tasks get overtime.

The lawsuit names Reynolds, the state and Jim Kurtenbach, the recently appointed director of the Iowa Department of Administrative Services. That agency serves as the state’s human resources department and processes state worker paychecks.

Messages left with the Department of Administrative Services went unanswered. A spokesman for the Iowa attorney general’s office, which represents the state in lawsuits, declined to comment Tuesday. A spokesman for the governor said Reynolds would not comment on pending litigation.

The women filing suit include Susan Rowe, a nurse at the Woodward Resource Center, a state-run facility for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

“I have a loss of $8,000 to $9,000 a year. It makes me and other nurses I work with feel unvalued, taken advantage of and really there’s not an avenue to get back what was stripped from us,” Rowe said.

She said the lawsuit was the last resort after talking with her boss, Woodward’s superintendent, the Iowa Department of Human Services head and her representatives in the Iowa Legislature.

The other women filing the lawsuit are nurses at state prison facilities, including Tammy Burden who works at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, where a lockdown recently occurred after an inmate fight.

Burden said nurses usually step in immediately after such incidents, especially when staff members are injured, to make sure everyone is OK.

“We’re right in the mix with everybody else. Nursing is an essential position at the prison,” she said. “We have to be there at a certain time. We have to provide coverage 24/7. Anybody else that’s an essential function gets paid overtime.”

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