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Nurses at Sacred Heart win court battle over breaks

Fri., Aug. 27, 2010, midnight

Hospital must pay damages, legal fees

Nurses at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center have won a court fight against the hospital that they say will ensure adequate rest breaks and bolster patient safety.

The sides have disagreed over what constitutes a rest break for years. The problems boiled over when the hospitals began counting trips to the bathroom, stops at drinking fountains and quick chats with co-workers against nurses’ rest breaks.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor ruled that Sacred Heart violated the state’s Minimum Wage Act and this week ordered the hospital to pay $104,700 in damages to its 1,600 registered nurses. The judge also ordered the hospital to pay $222,500 in legal fees owed the nurses’ attorneys.

The nurses are entitled by contract to have a 15-minute uninterrupted rest break for every four hours worked.

Patrick Clarry, vice president of human resources at Sacred Heart, said the hospital is weighing its options, including whether to appeal the decision.

He said the hospital provides rest breaks for employees and said the suit was an exercise to determine the payment methodology for nurses who work through their rest breaks.

Patient safety has never been at issue, he said.

In a statement issued by the Washington State Nurses Association, the ruling was called a victory that should encourage adequate staffing, patient safety, fatigue prevention and better care for patients.

Christine Himmelsbach, of the WSNA, said the ruling could set a precedent for hospitals across Washington.

“Too often hospitals in our state are not providing uninterrupted rest breaks for their nurses. Breaks are needed to prevent exhaustion,” she said. “We think this issue will be looked at now by a lot of hospitals.”

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