One month after a Greenwood Village-based air ambulance company agreed to pay $825,000 to settle allegations that it violated Federal Aviation Administration regulations, a judge has greenlit a class action lawsuit from employees claiming they were underpaid.
Flight paramedics and nurses in Michigan, New Mexico and Illinois sued Air Methods Corporation in February 2019, alleging the company failed to properly compensate them for overtime hours in accordance with their states’ wage laws. They attempted to bring the legal action on behalf of employees in their same situation because they “have been damaged, in large part by fraud,” through Air Methods’ unjust enrichment, the federal complaint reads.
Air Methods paramedics and nurses work 24-hour shifts, with eight hours of the day being “sleep time” that the company pays for. If employees receive at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep, the entire sleep time does not factor into overtime compensation. In the three states covered under the lawsuit, there are roughly 634 such employees.
"I was required to be on base for my entire shift and was required to be ready to respond promptly to emergencies that required air ambulance services," stated Susan Brzezinski, who worked for nearly six years in Michigan for Air Methods.
The plaintiffs deemed such a calculation a violation of wage laws. Last year, 450 Air Methods employees in California benefited from a $78 million settlement following similar claims involving overtime and employee breaks.
That proceeding also resulted in a change to Air Methods’ policies that “put our teammates first,” a spokesperson for the company said.
In a Dec. 29 order, U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson certified the lawsuit as a class action in Colorado, rejecting Air Methods’ argument that employees who spent part of their workweeks outside of their home states were not covered by those states’ wage laws.
“Air ambulance employees based in geographic areas where their flights frequently cross state borders and whose hours in either or both states alone would not exceed 40 in a week would lose the protections that air ambulance employees who rarely or never cross state lines have, even though their work weeks would be the same,” he wrote. “AMC’s argument, seemingly created in the effort to avoid class certification, is not persuasive.”
Jackson added that litigating claims on an individual basis would be “impractical,” given that compensation could be as low as $1,000 for some employees. The judge did, however, dismiss the plaintiffs’ claim of unjust enrichment against Air Methods, finding their wage claims by themselves would provide the remedy they sought.
Following Jackson's order, Air Methods filed a motion to dismiss the case. The Fair Labor Standards Act, the company argued, “expressly allows employees who are on duty for 24-hours or more to agree with their employer to exclude sleep periods of no more than eight hours from hours worked, provided the employer furnishes adequate sleeping facilities and the employee usually can enjoy an uninterrupted night’s sleep.”
Air Methods also contended that each of the three states now covered by the class action lawsuit appears to allow similar exemptions of sleep time from wage calculations.
The plaintiffs, by contrast, alleged Air Methods was asking the court to "make new law for the states" because their treatment of sleep time was not explicitly in line with federal law.
Jackson has set a jury trial to begin on July 12.
In November, Air Methods agreed to pay $825,000 to settle claims from the U.S. Department of Justice that it had “severely corroded” pilot tubes on one of its aircraft. A Federal Aviation Administration inspector discovered the defects, which have implications for autopilot functionality. The company denied that it was in violation of safety regulations or that the corroded tubes presented a significant risk.
Air Methods conducts 65,000 transports per year, amounting to approximately 150,000 flight hours.