In a huge victory for patient safety, the nine justices of the Washington State Supreme Court unanimously upheld nurses’ statutory rights to be paid overtime when their duties prevent them from taking a rest period. In 2007, the Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA) brought the legal action on behalf of the 1,200 registered nurses at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center (SHMC) in Spokane to recover unpaid wages for denied rest periods.
Research confirms that nurses working long hours have decreased alertness and vigilance which can lead to patient harm. WSNA has been working for several years to ensure that nurses receive full, uninterrupted breaks because that dedicated time to rest can play a critical role in preventing fatigue and fatigue-related errors.
The Court held that SHMC had extracted additional labor from the RNs when they missed rest periods. It held:
The additional labor Sacred Heart received when the nurses worked through their breaks was the equivalent of labor Sacred Heart otherwise would have secured by requiring nurses to work overtime only at the end their shifts. By putting nurses in a situation where they could not take their breaks, in violation of WAC 296-126-092(4), Sacred Heart effectively “authorized or required” nurses “to be on duty on the employer’s premises” to perform work equivalent to an overtime shift after the end of the normal workday.
The unanimous decision provides a powerful incentive for hospitals to adequately staff for rest breaks. In rejecting Sacred Heart’s argument that missed rest breaks should not trigger overtime, the Court explained:
As noted by WSNA, if this court were to accept Sacred Heart’s argument, Sacred Heart would be incentivized to employ fewer nurses for each shift, relying on those nurses to bear a heavy burden on busy days. In contrast, compensating employees who forgo their rest periods with overtime pay will help to ensure that employers continue to provide these breaks to their employees.
Judy Huntington, MN, RN, Executive Director of the Washington State Nurses Association said, “I am very happy that the Court has decided in favor of the nurses at Sacred Heart by mandating that the hospital properly compensate nurses for missed rest breaks. The hospital will now face a financial penalty when they fail to provide rest breaks. Ultimately, our goal is to have hospitals make safe staffing a priority.We are hopeful that the decision will also have a chilling effect on the other hospitals and their efforts to avoid paying nurses for missed breaks and serve as an incentive to them to give nurses the breaks they so deserve!”
For registered nurses who often spend busy 12-hour shifts on their feet making critical medical judgments for their patients, the need for rest breaks is even more critical. As the Court explained:
Rest periods are mandatory and promote employee efficiency. 29 C.F.R. § 785.18. Further, rest periods help ensure nurses can maintain the necessary awareness and focus required to provide safe and quality patient care.
“As a staff nurse, I can tell you that providing uninterrupted rest breaks is about nurse and patient safety. I am constantly managing critical life and death situations, and I need time completely away from work duties to regain my focus and alertness so I can provide safe patient care throughout a shift. By winning this case in the highest court of the state, it’s clear that we are gaining momentum in changing the unsafe practice of working nurses through their breaks. WSNA will keep fighting for breaks in the workplace, in the courts, and in the legislature. We are committed to patient safety and ensuring that every nurse in Washington receives their full rest breaks,” said Julia Weinberg, RN, President of WSNA.
Although the Court did not uphold the trial Court’s award of double damages because it concluded there was a “bona fide” legal dispute that exempted the employer from the additional penalty. No employer will have that excuse going forward. Employers who fail to pay for missed rest breaks will face claims for double damages, attorney’s fees and costs.
Click here to read the full decision by the Washington State Supreme Court.