Monday January 21st 2019

Rest breaks matter for patient safety

Nurses at a hospital represented by the Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA) recently scored a victory for patient safety when the State Supreme Court agreed that they have a legal right to be paid overtime when their duties prevent them from taking a rest period.

On April 2, the Washington State Supreme Court — in the case of WSNA vs. Sacred Heart Medical Center — reaffirmed its earlier unanimous decision regarding nurses’ rest breaks, bringing an end to the long, hard-fought battle of the nurses for justice and protection of patient safety. The American Nurses Association had filed an amicus brief in support of WSNA’s and nurses’ efforts.

“Nurses, the public’s heroes of health care, intercept 86 percent of medication errors before there is harm to patients, but they can’t do that if they aren’t rested and alert,” said Judy Huntington, MN, RN, executive director of WSNA. “This landmark decision will mean safer care for patients throughout Washington State and sets precedence for the rest of the country.”

In 2007, WSNA brought legal action on behalf of the 1,200 RNs at Sacred Heart in Spokane to recover unpaid wages for denied rest periods. This historic decision means that hospitals will now face a financial penalty if they fail to provide rest breaks and will serve as an important incentive for hospitals to give nurses the breaks they need and deserve to provide safe patient care.

“It’s harmful for both nurses and our patients when we’re forced to work 10, 12 or even more hours in a row without breaks,” said Vivian Hill, RN, CNOR, a nurse at Sacred Heart. “There has to be a limit to what is asked of us and our patients. Real rest breaks keep patients safe, that’s why WSNA and our nurses at Sacred Heart Medical Center fought for nine long years on this case. Justice is served with this decision.”

The court had previously ruled that Sacred Heart had extracted additional labor from the RNs when they missed rest periods. It specifically held that “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.”

In rejecting Sacred Heart’s argument that missed rest breaks should not trigger overtime, the court explained that if it 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.”

Hill added that the decision is a solid step in the right direction.

“We do need to continue to work to improve staffing so nurses, particularly young nurses, can feel that they can take their breaks without worrying about their patients or feeling like they are putting more responsibilities on co-workers who may also be overwhelmed.”

The court also agreed that the need for rest breaks is even more critical to ensure they have the awareness and focus needed to provide safe, quality patient care.

The Supreme 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. However, 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.

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