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Nurses Win Victories in Washington State

  • Synopsis: Published: 2010-08-27 - Registered Nurses Win Victories in Washington State for Patient Safety - Washington State Nurses Association.

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Registered Nurses Win Victories in Washington State for Patient Safety.

Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA), representing more than 16,000 registered nurses in Washington State, has won two landmark decisions for patient safety on the issue of missed breaks for registered nurses. Cases decided in Seattle and Spokane both affirm the employer's responsibility to provide uninterrupted rest breaks to nurses.

WSNA has been working for several years to ensure that nurses receive full, uninterrupted breaks because that dedicated time to rest is critical in preventing fatigue and fatigue-related errors. Research confirms that nurses working long hours have decreased alertness and vigilance which can lead to an increase in medical errors and compromised patient care.

"As a registered nurse, I am constantly managing critical life and death situations. I need time completely away from my work to regain my focus and alertness. Getting my breaks during a shift ensures that I can be at my best when I'm caring for my patients. Uninterrupted rest breaks are about nurse and patient safety, and now we have both a judge and arbitrator agreeing that this needs to be a priority. It's even more heartening to see that they both immediately recognized that these so-called intermittent breaks really mean no breaks at all for nurses," said WSNA President Julia Weinberg, RN.

In 2007, WSNA filed suit against Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane because nurses were being forced to work through their breaks and were not being compensated for this extra work, essentially providing a financial incentive for the hospital to have nurses work through their breaks. On August 20, 2010, the Spokane County Superior Court finalized its order stating that Sacred Heart Medical Center had violated the Washington Minimum Wage Act. Highlights of the decision include:

The hospital must pay nurses overtime for missed rest breaks resulting in overtime hours. This ruling eliminates the hospital's financial gain and incentive to work nurses though breaks, paving the road to a safer workplace.

A break must be uninterrupted time away from work duties and the hospital cannot implement intermittent breaks.

Sacred Heart committed this violation willfully and therefore the hospital was ordered to pay double damages, interest and all attorney fees for the multi-year legal battle.

At the University of Washington Medical Center, WSNA filed a grievance when nurses were reporting that they were regularly working through their breaks. Highlights of the arbitration decision released on August 9, 2010 include:

Rest breaks must be uninterrupted and intermittent breaks are not to be counted as a nurse's rest break.

It is the hospital's responsibility to ensure that nurses are receiving these breaks and not the responsibility of individual nurses.

The hospital must set up a system to track missed rest breaks which will count breaks as missed unless the nurse acknowledges receiving the break.

"These decisions are a clear victory for patients and nurses throughout the state. The Spokane Court's decision puts every hospital in the state on notice that they cannot work nurses through their rest breaks without consequences. We are committed to ensuring that every nurse in Washington receives their full breaks and we will fight in the workplace, in the courts, and in the legislature," said Christine Himmelsbach, MN, RN, Assistant Executive Director of Labor Relations for WSNA.

Founded in 1908, WSNA is the professional organization representing more than 16,000 registered nurses in Washington State. WSNA effectively advocates for the improvement of health standards and availability of quality health care for all people; promotes high standards for the nursing profession; and advances the professional and economic development of nurses.

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