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Northeast Georgia Health System settled with employees over meal break pay. This is how much the system is paying

The Northeast Georgia Health System has reached a settlement with 40 respiratory therapists in a dispute over the deduction of meal periods from time worked, when employees said they didn’t always get time for a break.

NGHS will pay the respiratory therapists a total of $90,000 in the settlement reached Aug. 28  - $45,000 in back wages and $45,000 in liquidated damages. The health system will also pay $22,500 in attorney’s fees to the employee’s attorney’s office.

The complaint filed on April 24, 2018, alleged that NGHS automatically deducted a half-hour meal period from the employees’ hours worked each day, although employees said they did not always have the opportunity to take an uninterrupted lunch.

According to documents, however, NGHS denied Fair Labor Standards Act violations and stated that employees were required to take a 30-minute uninterrupted, unpaid meal break, and that policies and procedures were in place to ensure that employees would be able to take that meal period. Also according to NGHS, the employees were paid for their time worked if they ended up not taking a break.

NGHS spokesman Sean Couch said the lawsuit involved employees who carried a department-issued phone during their meal breaks.

“Although NGHS has a system in place to compensate employees when a meal break is interrupted, the lawsuit alleged that there were some interrupted breaks which were not properly accounted for,” Couch said in an email. “We’re pleased a settlement was reached that works for all parties, and our organization has worked to re-educate staff about timekeeping policies.”

Couch said that once an hourly employee works more than six hours during a shift, the timekeeping system automatically processes a 30-minute break for the employee. Employees review their time card at the end of each pay period, and if they were unable to take 30 minutes of uninterrupted meal time, they should indicate that so they can be paid accurately.

Upgrades to the timekeeping system that went active this year have improved the process, Couch said.

The employees’ attorney, Howard Slomka, said he was glad an agreement had been reached.

“I’m always satisfied when the two sides of a lawsuit are able to settle their differences. In this case, it’s always difficult working with hospital employees who by the nature of their work, have emergency situations that frequently pop up during meals and other break times,” Slomka said. “I’m pleased that lawsuits like ours bring this to the attention of the employers so that both sides can deal with it proactively in the future.”