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At least 13 employees have joined a class action lawsuit against MedStar Health, including MedStar St. Mary’s and five of the firm’s other hospitals, saying they routinely were forced to work without pay through lunch breaks.

Attorneys representing the workers filed the case, Freeman et al v. MedStar Health Inc. et al, last Wednesday in U.S. District Court. At least one of the plaintiffs worked for MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital from 2009 to 2011, according to filing documents.

“MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital is aware that a wage-hour complaint has been filed, but we have not been formally served,” spokeswoman Holly Meyer wrote in an email Wednesday. “Once received, we will review the complaint and respond accordingly. The hospital has a tradition of caring for our community for more than 100 years, and we equally value our employees. It is not our practice to comment on personnel matters in pending litigation.”

Jason Rathod, a lawyer for the employees, said although the case is filed with the district court and has been assigned a judge, he has 30 days to formally serve the hospital system. Rathod said he expects other employees might join the suit during that time.

This could be “a good local illustration” of the growing national concern of wage theft, Rathod said. MedStar has “a major presence” in the D.C., Baltimore and Southern Maryland area, said Rathod, of the D.C. office of Whitfield Bryson and Mason. “They’re a very large employer.”

If the allegations are proven to be true, “then it shows that MedStar may have been achieving dramatic cost savings on their part that they were not entitled to,” he said. “And, that should be going to their workers.”

One to three years could pass before the case is finalized, the plaintiff’s attorney said. Rathod’s team, he said, has to show MedStar employees were subject to similar time keeping policies, and that managers acted similarly in enforcing those policies.

Plaintiffs include a labor and delivery nurse and a second registered nurse, a medical office assistant, technicians, a lab worker, a member of the housekeeping staff and others. In addition to MedStar St. Mary’s, the suit also includes complaints against MedStar Washington Hospital Center and MedStar Georgetown University Hospital as well as MedStar facilities in Baltimore.

According to filing documents, Rathod is representing Thomas Curtis of Great Mills, who worked at MedStar St. Mary’s from 2009 to 2011. Rathod alleged Curtis was forced to work through lunch breaks about 50 percent of the time. He had to complete tasks such as cleaning the emergency room and making beds, and was unable to take his lunch break. But, like other workers in the case, Rathod said, 30 minutes automatically was deducted from Curtis’ pay for lunch breaks he worked through.

According to a declaration in filing documents provided by Rathod, Curtis reported that “during my time at St. Mary’s, my supervisors and managers knew that I regularly worked during my unpaid meal breaks because they regularly encouraged and instructed me to perform the work at issue, saw me performing this work and knew that the facility lacked sufficient staffing to cover my work duties so that I could take an uninterrupted meal break.”

Workers from other departments, Rathod said, filled out paperwork saying they had to work through lunch, submitted them to their managers and were allegedly questioned about excessive overtime. Or, he said, the papers were “lost in the shuffle.”

nclark@somdnews.com