PITTSFIELD — A licensed practical nurse claims that Berkshire Health Systems engaged in systematic wage theft by deducting time for meal breaks she and others weren't able to take.
In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Springfield, Shayla Clark of Pittsfield seeks to be the lead plaintiff in a class action against the region's largest employer.
But the nonprofit hospital system rejects Clark's claims, saying in a recent filing and in an attorney's interview Thursday that it did not make LPNs work without compensation.
If successful, Clark and others who join the proposed class action stand to recoup not only past wages going back as far as six years, but interest and damages.
A hearing in the case is scheduled May 16 in Springfield.
The suit is not in any way related to the ongoing contract negotiations between the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents registered nurses, and Berkshire Medical Center.
Attorney Lucy Prashker of the Great Barrington firm Cain Hibbard & Myers said Thursday that LPNs who are paid on an hourly basis are able to take 30-minute meal breaks when they work shifts of more than six hours.
"It is our policy and practice to pay all of our employees for all time worked," Prashker said.
That policy applies to the hospital and to all other BHS subsidiaries, she said, adding, "We work very hard to make sure all those things happen."
In a March 26 response, Prashker denied dozens of assertions in Clark's lawsuit, including the central claim of wage theft.
"BHS denies any knowledge that Plaintiff ever worked during a scheduled meal break for which she was not paid by [Berkshire Medical Center]," Prashker wrote.
Benjamin Steffans, the Pittsfield attorney representing Clark, said the action turns on a claim that LPNs were assigned work duties during meal breaks, depriving them of fair compensation.
"That's a fundamental baseline principle. Period," Steffans told The Eagle. "That's a grave injustice."
Clark's lawsuit was filed Dec. 29. Attorneys for the two sides met for the first time last week, Steffans said.
The suit needs to be approved as a class action. If it is, the health systems could be compelled to notify current and former LPNs that they are eligible to join the litigation.
Steffans said he and his co-counsel, Springfield attorney Jeffrey S. Morneau, are recruiting other class members. The affected group, they claim, numbers more than 100 LPNs.
They say Berkshire Health's use of a "Meal Break Deduction Policy" led the business to shortchange employees.
"BHS knew or should have known that the Plaintiff and Class Members perform work during these meal and other unpaid breaks, but still do not pay them for this time," the lawsuit claims.
Work done during such breaks, the suit says, happened in the view of managers at the defendant's work locations.
Clark worked as an LPN for Hillcrest Family Health Center at 631 North St. in Pittsfield. According to a filing by Berkshire Health, Clark worked from May 2, 2016, and began a leave of absence in early July 2017 that continues.
In its response, Berkshire Health faults the suit for naming it, when Clark in fact worked for the medical center. Prashker writes that Berkshire Health, which has no employees, is "not a party to this action."
Steffans said he expected that issue to be worked out in the course of the litigation.
Berkshire Health also argues that the issue should be subject to arbitration under collective bargaining. LPNs at Berkshire Medical Center are represented by the Service Employees International Union 1199.
No one with the union could be reached Thursday for comment about whether it is involved in any action regarding the allegation of unpaid wages.
Steffans said he believes his client's claims are best addressed in court.
"You wouldn't resolve this type of thing through the bargaining process," he said.
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.