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Lawsuit accuses Cincinnati health staffing company of labor trafficking

Health Carousel Rookwood Tower
Posted at 3:33 PM, Feb 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-14 15:33:13-05

A health care staffing company based in Cincinnati is being sued by workers it recruited from the Philippines, who are accusing the company of violating federal and state human trafficking laws.

Fast-growing Health Carousel is headquartered in Cincinnati, has an Austin Landing office, and in recent years has acquired other Dayton-area staffing firms. While they have different brands that do different types of staffing, this suit focuses on their international recruitment.

The latest updated complaint and was filed in December and says “Health Carousel’s ‘employment’ is essentially indentured servitude.”

A recent investigation by Bloomberg Businessweek featured a former contractor Novie Dale Carmen, recruited from the Philippines and placed in a nursing job near Philadelphia, who said she had to pay $20,000 to quit.

Health Carousel said in response to the Bloomberg investigation that “ensuring the health, safety and well-being of every one of our nurses is the core of our business. To imply otherwise, based on activists intent on exploiting and twisting the experiences of a few, is disheartening and damaging.”

The former Health Carousel contract nurse told Bloomberg she was supposed to work 6,240 hours on her contract before quitting.

But she said the company kept adding reasons not to count hours such as not counting the first three months because they were considered orientation, and not counting overtime but she couldn’t decline overtime.

The lawsuit also said there was an unexpected month delay between when she arrived in the U.S. and when she started work at the hospital, during which she had no income.

Contract workers with the company are not allowed to discuss pay or working conditions, which isolates them, the lawsuit states, and workers who leave before completing their contract commitment can be sued. Workers are required to inform Health Carousel if they travel out of the town or state in which they are living, the lawsuit states.

Carmen told Bloomberg she was paid $25.50 an hour as an ER nurse, but later learned many local positions paid more, and the hospital system UPMC paid Health Carousel $52 or more for each hour she worked.

The lawsuit was first filed in March 2020 and is seeking class action status. Two other named plaintiffs have joined the suit, including a physical therapist who stated in the lawsuit that she was earning $45.56 per patient visit, while physical therapists who were hired directly by the facility were earning $105 per visit for start of care and $75 per visit for routine care.

The Dayton Daily News has previously reported about how health care companies are grappling with widespread job vacancies and burnout. Employees who are left are gaining new leverage to demand higher wages. Staffing agencies have also been gaining leverage, as demand for their services has soared.

Attorney David Seligman with Towards Justice, a member of the legal team representing the plaintiffs, said they do not think every company is engaging in conduct as serious as the conduct that their clients allege.

“But there is clearly a broader systemic issue surrounding strategies that employers may use in order to continue employ workers for less than market wages,” Seligman said.

The plaintiffs are still working on getting certification for their proposed class action lawsuit.

Among Health Carousel’s arguments, the company states that its contract terms, which it says are standard in employment contracts and that it uses contract terms that Ohio has long recognized and approved, including a liquidated damages clause and a non-compete covenant. The organization argues it hasn’t violated any law, hasn’t compelled labor, and hasn’t misrepresented contract terms.

“One need only skim recent headlines about National Guard troops deployed in hospitals to relieve acute staffing shortages to understand how important businesses like Health Carousel are,” the company said in a motion to dismiss filed in January. “Despite the invaluable service Health Carousel and its employees provide in helping address staffing shortages (especially during this time of national crisis), this lawsuit demonizes Health Carousel as a “human trafficker” and a “racketeer.”

Along with trying to get the entire complaint dismissed, Health Carousel has argued that at least the class action proposal should be struck down and argued the different named workers don’t have circumstances and claims that apply to each other.