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Novie Dale Carmen is leading a proposed class action against her former employer, the staffing agency Health Carousel.

Novie Dale Carmen is leading a proposed class action against her former employer, the staffing agency Health Carousel.

Photographer: Haruka Sakaguchi for Bloomberg Businessweek

Nurses Who Faced Lawsuits for Quitting Are Fighting Back

Hospitals are leaning harder than ever on underpaid contract staffers, many from the Philippines. The ones who are suing could change that.

A couple of years ago, Novie Dale Carmen paid $20,000 to quit her nursing job. She was less than halfway to fulfilling the three-year commitment she’d made to Health Carousel LLC, the health-care staffing agency that had helped get her from the Philippines to a hospital in Muncy, a town about three hours northwest of Philadelphia. From across the Pacific, the deal had seemed like a good one, but once she was in Pennsylvania, she began to feel differently.

Carmen says she was paid much less than the American nurses around her. She was banned from discussing her working conditions or going out of town without notifying the agency. Health Carousel seemed to keep finding ways not to count her work toward the 6,240 hours on her contract—the first three months of shifts didn’t qualify, the company said, because it considered that time part of her orientation period. Mandatory overtime didn’t count toward her quota, either. And because she couldn’t refuse overtime, her shifts could stretch as long as 16 hours in an understaffed emergency room.