News   Advocacy & Policy

State Supreme Court rules for nurses in rest and meal breaks case

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.