Several former Erlanger Health System police officers filed labor complaints Monday alleging the hospital wouldn't pay them when they worked during their lunch periods.
"Erlanger would deduct our 30-minute lunch if we took our lunch or not," states a complaint written by Jerry Lawrence, one of four officers who submitted paperwork to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
Each officer filed a separate complaint.
Jeff Hentschel, spokesman for the state department, confirmed the officers' claims are being investigated. The state will begin gathering information from Erlanger "immediately," he said, but gathering older documents and time sheets could take a while.
"It's difficult to say when this will be resolved," Hentschel said. "It depends on the cooperation from the employer."
Erlanger spokeswoman Pat Charles responded to a request for comment by email.
"Erlanger has not received a complaint filed collectively by these former employees concerning this issue," she wrote. "We have received a complaint by one of these individuals which is currently under review. As with any complaint of this nature, Erlanger would investigate the charges, file a formal response to the Department of Labor and await their ruling."
In March, Erlanger outsourced security services to Walden Security at nearly double the cost of in-house services. The hospital terminated 30 police and security officers - including the four who filed complaints. Hospital officials have said Walden hired a dozen former Erlanger officers.
Asked why the now-unemployed officers didn't file the complaints during their time at Erlanger, Chattanooga attorney Andrew Stinnett said the hospital discouraged dissent.
"I think they were afraid of losing their jobs," said Stinnett, who represents seven former Erlanger officers including the four who filed complaints. "That's what the guys tell me all the time. They felt threatened."
The officers, who worked for between $12 and $15 an hour, were allotted 30 unpaid minutes to eat lunch as required by state law. But their complaints describe an atmosphere in which lunch was a luxury rather than a requirement.
As former officer Gary Avans put it in his complaint: "I was the only officer at Erlanger North per [eight-hour] shift. I could not leave or take a lunch break, numerous times, due to the fact that I was the only officer present. I would have to leave my lunch to answer calls."
According to the complaints, Erlanger refused to pay the officers for their lunch-break work. In the complaints, each officer has requested half an hour's pay per workday across their entire employment at the hospital. In three of the four officers' cases, that equals 21/2 hours per week over the course of more than a decade.
Former Erlanger police officers Ron Capetz and Harold Holliday are the other two officers who have filed complaints.
"I feel that I am due each one-half hour's pay that has been taken away from me," Capetz wrote.