State Supreme Court sides with nurses union

OLYMPIA – Some 1,200 nurses at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center are entitled to overtime pay when their duties prevent them from taking a rest breaks during their shifts, the state Supreme Court said today.

The court reversed parts of lower-court decisions in a dispute that reaches back to the middle of the last decade. At issue were 15-minute rest breaks every four hours, which are required in the contract between the hospital and the nurses union.

Sometimes, nurses weren’t able to take those breaks because they were too busy with duties at their stations. After an arbitrator ruled in favor of the union when a grievance was filed, the hospital began paying them straight time: for example, 8.5 hours of regular pay for an eight-hour shift with two missed breaks.

The union argued that under state law, they were entitled to overtime, or 8.75 hours of pay. A trial court agreed with the union and assessed damages against the hospital; the appeals court split 2-1 in favor of the hospital.

The unanimous Supreme Court said that nurses were entitled to more than $52,000 in lost wages and interest: “Nurses are entitled to overtime compensation because they provided additional labor to Sacred Heart.”

But the hospital doesn’t have to double that for a “willful violation” of labor law, a penalty which the trial court had imposed, the justices said.

The hospital is, however, responsible for attorney’s costs of about $200,000.

Joe Robb, a spokesman for the hospital, said Sacred Heart was disappointed the appeals court decision was overturned, but pleased the court said the hospital did not intentionally underpay its employees.

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