Photo Jan 22 7 50 31 Am

On Thursday, April 19, the Washington State Supreme Court unani­mously ruled in favor of regis­tered nurses who filed a class action lawsuit against their employer for failing to ensure the nurses could take the rest and meal breaks to which they are entitled under state law. 

The specific issue before the Court in this case, Chavez v. Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital at Pasco, was whether the nurses’ lawsuit could proceed as a class action rather than separate lawsuits by each individual nurse. The Supreme Court ruled that the nurses could sue their employer collec­tively, noting that individual nurses may be reluc­tant to sue their employers” and that individual nurses likely do not have the bargaining power to achieve systemic victo­ries” that change the employer’s conduct going forward. 

Rejecting the employer’s argument that differ­ences between various units of the hospital made a class action lawsuit impos­sible, the Court deter­mined that the dominant and overriding issue in this litiga­tion is whether Lourdes failed to ensure the nurses could take rest breaks and [for those on 12 hour shifts] second meal breaks and could record missed breaks.” The hospital’s Kronos timekeeping system did not allow nurses to record missed breaks.

Nurses’ missed breaks impli­cate impor­tant public safety issues” 

The Court concluded that nurses’ missed rest and meal breaks impli­cate impor­tant public safety issues.” As WSNA has long argued, missed rest and meal breaks repre­sent the tip of the iceberg of inade­quate nurse staffing. A hospital that fails to provide required rest and meal breaks for nurses is a hospital without adequate staffing for safe patient care.

Inter­mit­tent breaks not permitted where work requires constant vigilance to protect life 

The Court also addressed the employer’s argument that nurses could take so-called inter­mit­tent rest periods” – that is, brief moments in which employees are allowed to engage in personal activ­i­ties while relieved of all work duties – by noting that when the nature of work requires employees to engage in constant mental or physical exertion, inter­mit­tent rest periods are not permitted… An example of constant mental exertion that does not permit an inter­mit­tent rest period is where the nature of the work requires employees to engage in constant mental vigilance to protect life or property…” 

Since a nurse is respon­sible at all times for the care of his or her assigned patients unless relieved by another regis­tered nurse, the nature of the work clearly requires the nurse to engage in constant mental vigilance to protect life,” so that inter­mit­tent rest breaks are not permis­sible. As the Court noted, the nurses at Lourdes are governed by uniform meal and break policies and are all respon­sible for patient care when they are in assignment.” 

This decision is the latest victory for nurses in the decade-long campaign initi­ated by WSNA to ensure that hospi­tals are adequately staffed so that nurses can take the meal and rest breaks they are guaran­teed by law.