More than 3,000 nurses in the Capital Region are finally receiving a payday they’ve been waiting on for seven years.
Checks averaging $1,730 were mailed Friday to 3,277 nurses involved in a multimillion-dollar class action suit that alleged the area’s biggest hospitals conspired to keep their wages low for four years. None of the hospitals ever admitted any wrongdoing, but all eventually settled.
“These settlement payouts are a victory for registered nurses and for patients,” said Norma Amsterdam, executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the state’s largest health care union.
The union, along with the SEIU Nurse Alliance, helped conduct research that led to the original suit in 2006 against Albany Medical Center, Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, Samaritan Hospital in Troy, Albany Memorial Hospital, St. Mary’s Hospital in Troy and St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany.
The suit — which included anyone employed as a registered, advanced practice, managerial or supervisory nurse at those hospitals from June 2002 through June 2006 — alleged that the hospitals violated federal antitrust laws by conspiring to keep nurse wages low. The way they did this, it contended, was by regularly exchanging detailed information about current and future nurse compensation so entry-level hourly rates differed by no more than $1 from hospital to hospital.
Filed in June 2006 on behalf of area nurses Wendy Fleischman and Cindy Cullen, the suit sought compensation for lost wages and damages. Over the last seven years, the hospitals denied any conspiracy or that they underpaid their nurses and said they increased compensation and benefits independently of each other and at competitive levels.
The court never decided either way once Ellis Hospital, the last defendant to hold out, agreed in March 2011 to pay $4.8 million. Prior to that, everyone had agreed to pay out roughly 2 percent of the compensation nurses received between June 2002 and June 2006.
Northeast Health, representing Samaritan and Albany Memorial hospitals, agreed to pay about $1.35 million. Seton Health, which runs St. Mary’s Hospital, agreed to pay $744,739. St. Peter’s Health Care Services, representing St. Peter’s Hospital, agreed to pay nearly $2.7 million. And Albany Medical Center agreed to pay more than $4.5 million.
“The checks will help compensate these hard-working nurses, and the settlement will have an even larger effect on the overall quality of healthcare in the area,” said Amsterdam. “We have helped ensure that all registered nurses are compensated fairly, and that means there will be better recruitment and retention of qualified staff, safer staffing and ultimately higher quality of care for patients.”
The unions called the settlement significant, citing studies that have shown nurse shortages are due in part to wage suppression and that short-staffing negatively affects the quality of care patients receive.
Similar suits were filed in Detroit, Chicago, San Antonio and Memphis during a nationwide nurse shortage.
“Laying the foundation for this class action lawsuit was part of our role as industry watchdogs and leading patient advocates,” said 1199SEIU President George Gresham. “We put employers on notice that they will be held accountable to nurses, caregivers, communities and patients.”