International nurses sue staffing agency over quitting penalties, wages

A group of international nurses is suing Health Carousel, a healthcare staffing agency, accusing the company of wage theft and other unfair labor practices, Bloomberg reported Feb. 2.

The proposed class-action lawsuit comes at a time when hospitals are relying on international nurses more than ever to fill gaps created by a trove of U.S. healthcare workers leaving the industry. It was filed by Novie Dale Carmen, a nurse from the Philippines who signed a three-year commitment with Health Carousel to come to the U.S. and work at a hospital in Muncy, Pa. Ms. Carmen ended up paying a $20,000 quitting fee to get out of her contract early. 

Low wages, mandatory overtime that did not count toward the 6,240 hours on her contract, and a ban keeping her from discussing her working conditions pushed Ms. Carmen to the costly decision to pay the quitting fee. 

"I was basically trapped," she told Bloomberg. "Duped." 

Since originally filing the suit against Health Carousel, two more plaintiffs have joined. The suit accuses the company of human trafficking — which the Department of Homeland Security defines as the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor — wage theft and racketeering. 

In a statement to Bloomberg, Health Carousel denied wrongdoing. 

"We are proud of our work to place internationally trained nurses at understaffed hospital systems in the United States," the company said. "We invest to recruit these professionals and sponsor their employment-based visas to fulfill their dreams," adding that it expects employees who do not finish their contracts to pay back its upfront expenses, which include things such as a visa, licensing and travel. 

The news outlet cited a filing from last year where Health Carousel said it "denies all allegations that Plaintiff or any of its nurses were indentured servants to Health Carousel" and denied claims that its contract terms are "draconian." 

If the class-action suit results in a victory for nurses, it could have far-reaching implications for the healthcare recruiting industry. 

"A win in this case will send a signal to the recruitment industry generally, at least in the healthcare sector, that they can't continue to use these types of contracts without the very serious risk of contracts being found unenforceable and the recruitment agencies being called human traffickers," Jonathan Harris, a professor at Loyola Marymount University's law school in Los Angeles. 

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