Washington state nurses union loses court battle against hospital over wages, breaks

A nurses union in Washington state has lost a court battle seeking damages on behalf of members for unpaid working hours, overtime hours and missed meal periods.

The Washington Supreme Court overturned the damages award Aug. 13 for the Washington State Nurses Association that sued now-shuttered Yakima (Wash.) Regional hospital over the issue, reports Bloomberg Law.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court said the union did not have associational standing under state law to bring a claim on behalf of its members "when it must rely on representative testimony in order to establish the amount and extent of damages that its members suffered." The court said it "does not condone Yakima Regional's employment practices that the nurses testified to throughout trial," but the Washington State Nurses Association lacks associational standing to sue because damages established through representative testimony weren't certain, easily ascertainable, or within the knowledge of Yakima Regional.

The Washington State Nurses Association, a statewide labor organization, sued Yakima Regional in April 2015 on behalf of 28 home health and hospice nurses seeking damages under state law. The nurses said impossible productivity requirements were imposed that nurses regularly could not complete within an eight-hour workday. They contend they often spent hours on documentation and charting outside of the normal workday and were also rarely able to take a 30-minute uninterrupted meal break. They said they were often denied overtime to complete their charting.

During a January 2018 trial before Yakima County Superior Court Judge Blaine Gibson, nine nurses testified about the work environment, and the union presented a damages calculation chart, according to court documents. The association presented a damages calculation chart that was created by its expert. The trial court found total damages to be $1.4 million and awarded the union attorney fees and court costs. The trial court also said Yakima Regional "knowingly and willfully deprived the nurses of their pay" and ordered double damages, bringing the total damages to about $2.9 million, according to court documents.

Yakima Regional appealed, arguing that the union lacked associational standing.

Yakima Regional's owner, Sunnyside, Wash.-based Astria Health, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May 2019 and closed the hospital in January. It still has a home health and hospice program in Yakima. 

In response to the Washington Supreme Court's decision, Astria Health told Becker's Hospital Review: "This was a pre acquisition matter for the selling company. Since Astria Health acquired the home health and hospice, Astria has taken steps to ensure employees are paid for all work performed. There has been extensive education for all home health and hospice employees, so they can accurately record all time worked. Astria Health accurately compensates employees for all of the hard work they put forth to provide excellent services to our patients and communities."

Christine Watts, RN, Washington State Nurses Association senior labor consultant, expressed disappointment in the Washington Supreme Court's decision and thanked nurses who testified and provided evidence.

"It took courage to stand up and tell the truth in the face of the employer's deliberate and willful falsifications," she said in a statement provided to Becker's Hospital Review. "Despite this setback, WSNA will continue to fight to improve the working lives of nurses across the state. We will continue to advocate to ensure that nurses are properly paid for all the hours they work."


More articles on human resources:
Hackensack Meridian Health workers seek to unionize
HCA nurses win push for unionization election
New Labor Department definition of healthcare provider left many without paid sick leave, inspector general finds

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