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Washington State Nurses Overtime Decision: Employers Alert

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Spokane, WAIn October 2012 the Supreme Court of Washington held that about 1,200 registered nurses in Spokane who worked through their rest periods were entitled to overtime pay under the

Washington State Employment law. This decision will likely put many employers on the alert regarding overtime and Washington employee rights.

The Nurses overtime lawsuit (Nurses Association v. Sacred Heart Medical Center) held that a missed rest break extends the employee’s workday. For instance, if a nurse works an eight hour day but misses one rest break, she has worked the equivalent of 8.25 hours. This additional .25 hours of hours worked extends the work week beyond 40 hours a week, and that spells overtime. Because the length of the break period mandated by Washington law is 10 minutes, registered nurses are entitled to overtime compensation under the state Minimum Wage Act.

The Washington Supreme Court relied on a prior overtime decision in Wingert v. Yellow Freight Systems, Inc. regarding employees who are not provided their mandated rest break and their workday is extended by ten minutes. Yellow Freight employees alleged that their employer required them to work longer than three consecutive hours without a paid rest period.

According to court documents, Freight's employees are given a morning and an afternoon break and a lunch break during a regular workday as follows:
  • a typical day for Dock Workers and Hostlers consists of two hours of work, followed by a fifteen minute paid break, followed by one and three-quarters hours of work, followed by a half-hour unpaid lunch break, followed by the same pattern again: two hours of work, a fifteen minute paid break, then one and three-quarters hours of work.

  • Now that registered nurses are entitled to overtime compensation for the first ten minutes, or the length of their rest period as mandated by Washington law, employers must be cognizant that their employees take their rest breaks. But how can, say, hospital administrators ensure that nurses take their legally mandated break—ten minutes for every four hours worked? In practical terms, there are patients to think about, and what nurse would put a patient at risk by taking a rest break?

    Without scheduled breaks, it is almost impossible to ascertain that employees—such as nurses—are getting their legally mandated 10 minutes. Taking this to the extreme, an employer facing an overtime lawsuit can argue that their workers took intermittent rest breaks, but how could that be proven?

    Washington State employers should also be aware that an employee’s work week is extended if a rest period is missed, even if the employee voluntarily waives his or her 10 minutes. (California employment law, on the other hand, mandates that an employee can voluntarily waive rest breaks.)

    To date, it is uncertain how the nurses’ overtime decision regarding rest periods will affect meal breaks.


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