Washington hospitals sued

The Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA) has filed lawsuits against four additional Washington hospitals for failing to provide nurses with adequate rest breaks. Earlier this summer, they were successful in two similar suits: the Spokane County Superior Court ruled that Sacred Heart Medical Hospital violated the Minimum Wage Act by failing to pay nurses for missed rest breaks, and an arbitrator ruled that the University of Washington Medical Center is required to provide nurses will full, uninterrupted 15- minute breaks as provided for in the collective bargaining agreement.

Both decisions, the WSNA says, “conclude that a nurse’s rest break must be uninterrupted time away from work duties, not a series of small, intermittent breaks which consist of brief interruptions in work throughout the day.” The goal of the lawsuits “is to cause a fundamental shift in how hospitals in this state prioritize breaks and safety,” says WSNA president Julia Weinberg, RN. “By imposing a financial penalty for failing to provide uninterrupted breaks, we hope these lawsuits will ensure that hospitals make breaks a priority,” explains Christine Himmelsbach, MN, RN, assistant executive director of labor relations for WSNA.

The four hospitals currently targeted are:

  • Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup
  • Tacoma General Hospital
  • Evergreen Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue
  • Holy Family Hospital in Spokane

While the research confirms what nurses have known for years — few nurses get full breaks; long shifts + heavy responsibility + lack of breaks = fatigue and increased potential for mistakes — part of the blame may lie with nurses themselves. In an article for HealthLeaders Media, Rebecca Hendren argues that horizontal hostility, or bullying, may play a role.  “It manifests itself in a culture where nurses complain about having to watch someone’s patients while they take a quick break. Or gossiping about so-and-so being a ‘bad nurse’ because he leaves his patients to get lunch,” Hendren writes.

The solution, she says, must include subtle shifts within the culture of nursing. Nurses must be educated on the importance of breaks, and hospitals may need to work with nurses to dispel what she calls “the culture of martyrdom.” Innovative staffing programs, such as hiring part-time nurses to cover lunch breaks, may also be part of the solution.

What do you think? Do you feel pressure from fellow nurses to not take a full break? Or are you simply stretched too thin?


Jennifer Fink, RN, BSN

Jennifer is a professional freelance writer with over eight years experience as a hospital nurse. She has clinical experience in adult health, including med-surg, geriatrics and transplant; she also has a particular interest in women’s health and cancer care. Jennifer has written a variety of health and parenting articles for national publications.

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9 Responses to Washington hospitals sued

  1. Patricia Jankowski

    All I can say is, IT IS ABOUT TIME.

  2. Sheryl

    I have been a RN for 10 yrs and I have to say,for the first 8 yrs of my career, I felt obligated to forgoe my breaks due to being overly busy and short staffed. I now pick a “break buddy” every morning during report and the two of us break eachother throughout the day. I try my hardest to take both of my 2 15 min. breaks and my 1/2 hr lunch, despite whether my break buddy decides to take his/hers. I have found that most of the time the charge nurse doesn’t much care if you get your breaks, or they are just too busy to keep track. This method I have chosen allows me to keep the decision from being the charge nurses. Sure, there are days when it just isn’t possible, but for the most part, it’s working much better and I am feeling a lot less resentful toward my employer.

  3. Debbie

    I really would love to take lunch everyday, but if i did i would be so far behind and would have to work overtime to get my work done. Who wants to pay for overtime? I started to take breaks earlier in the shift after my meds are given out. But it is rare for me to go away from the unit for half an hr. It’s not fair to me some days. But i will always put my pts. first no matter what.

  4. Holly L. Sherlock RN PhD

    It gets even worse when hospitals force nurses to work 12h shifts. For nurses hired to work 8 hour shifts, then after more than 20 years of service told you will now work 12h is a travesty. If nurses want to do it that’s one thing, but being forced is another. There should be a balance and flexibility to nurses work hours. Getting a break during is difficult and staying awake is even harder on the 12h overnight shift.

  5. Shawnee

    I agree with Sheryl. Our family practice was recently bought by a corporation that mandates 30 min lunch and strongly encourages us to take breaks. This was new territory for us, but like Sheryl, our DON isn’t even on site. She has no way (or interest) in helping us to take our breaks. Another nurse I work with and I help each other to take those much needed breaks so we can get a snack, walk around and get away from the computer for a while. It has made a big difference in our day.

  6. Vicki

    We are being forced to take lunch breaks, we have been called to the unit manager’s office more than once and told, no matter how busy we are, we need time away from the unit. Well, when you are so busy, so far behind, I would just rather work through lunch and try to leave on time. What is the difference between taking a lunch and then having to stay and work overtime in the morning? I take my break around 0300 am when it is usually nice and quiet, the optimal time to work on my computer documentation. So, I do not want to take a break but continue my documentation. In the morning it’s pure chaos, starting between 0300 and 0400, the lab starts drawing blood and my tech takes vs, then from that point on, all patient are awakened, and are calling for BR, pain meds, etc! If I wait until the morning to try and document, it is pure chaos, Dr’s start to arrive, Charts are missing for those patients that have gone to surgery or that might be with therapy or in wound care. So, I do not want to risk taking a lunch break, then staying late to complete my documentation, with charts missing, etc!

    Nurses on my unit do NOT cover each other for breaks! I am constantly having to get interrupted on my break to get up and give pain meds, etc. On other units, at the same hospital, they actually assign you a buddy to relieve, and when she goes on break, she will give you her phone. I think this is a great idea! Some nights I really want a break, and I mentioned that and this one nurse, said that will not work on this unit, because, you would have to make rounds with all your patients before you went on break, and make sure they have all been medicated with pain meds first! She said how would you feel if I went on break and all my patients called for pain medication? I said, oh well, if it happens, it happens…Well, at night, we do rounds, but patients do call for pain medication when needed, I am not gonna wake up anyone that is sleeping to offer pain meds. A lot of nurses are just punching out, like me, and I just work through my break, when I am completely behind.I heard a lot of nurses hospital wide are doing the same thing, we feel that our job is on the line if we do not! Why else is our top management telling us we absolutely have to, and they are watching this very closely to see who is and is not taking there dinner break!

    This article really hits home, and is right on the $$ for our unit. Just last night, I was eating dinner, a patient wanted to be unhooked from his IV, I was on break, they just kept telling the pt, I was busy with another patient, the tech is not allowed to unhook IV’s. This poor patient ended up waiting 20 minutes to have his IV unhooked, so that he could go to the BR. Why would they keep telling this man I was tied up and NOT go and see what he wanted or help him??? Well, I told the patient, I am tired of covering, our nurses have no teamwork unless it’s absolutely a necessity. I can be running around all night, and they are NOT blind, they are sitting at the desk laughing, playing on the internet, and no one lifts a finger! They wonder why are patient satisfaction scores are low???

  7. Robin

    What’s a break? Lunch? What lunch? 37 years of nursing and if I had been paid for my breaks and uneaten lunches, I could have retired some years ago. I’ve seen (and still see) whole days of no bathroom breaks stretching from before leaving home in the morning until I get home 12 hours later! 30 years ago I remember our ICU petitioning the administration to allow us to work 10 or 12 hour shifts (it took that long to get our work done anyway and we could staff better) and they were scandalized. Now, with my bulging discs, bad knees, and high blood pressure, an 8 hour shift job is impossible to find. Add to that the draconian sick policies where they beat you with a stick because you are ill (did they forget basics of aging: decreased immunity among others), all I can think of is retirement! God help all you young nurses, because no one else will. It is only going to get worse.

  8. Very interesting article…there are employers out there who need to take note of this as they seem to have never heard of the concept of “breaks”..I think having to work hours and hours without any respite plays a big role in early nurse burnout…At the hospital we were very much encouraged to take them…however even tho we had another nurse covering us I would never think of going on break without making sure all my pts IVs and pain meds were up to date hopefully assuring that the covering nurse would only have to take care of unexpected requests and situations..

  9. shawn

    It’s called a resource nurse in CA. It satisfies the pt to Rn ratio, because a nurse with pt’s already can not take more pt’s as allowed by law. The Resource nurse then breaks the unit nurses and then helps out with labor/staff intensive tasks. ie picc line checks, cath removals, admits, supplying ect. It has shown to be more cost effective than paying for overtime and missed meals on the unit