A Michigan district court recently granted a union’s summary judgment motion to enforce an arbitrator’s decision that struck down the hospital’s new method of scheduling nurses’ shifts. In enforcing the arbitrator’s decision, the court relied on the fact that the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) at issue did not set forth a clear definition of what constitutes full-time employment, underscoring the importance of CBA language.

Under the old method of scheduling nurses, the hospital in this case used a program that allowed the nurses maximum flexibility in scheduling their hours. Under the new pattern scheduling method, nurses were scheduled to work strict 12 hour shifts for a total of 72 hours each pay period. The nurses working this schedule were called 12/72 hour nurses and the hospital considered them full-time, even though this method resulted in only 36 hours of work per week. The nurses did not like the pattern scheduling because it limited their ability to manage their own schedules.

The union alleged the hospital made the change without involving the union. Accordingly, the union filed a grievance, ultimately arguing that the new pattern scheduling system violated the collective bargaining agreement, which provided “there shall be no normal work day or normal work week for part-time employees.” After considering the matter, the arbitrator found that the 12/72 hour schedule created normal work weeks for part-time nurses. Therefore, the arbitrator ruled that the hospital violated the CBA by creating normal work weeks of 36 hours for practically all of the hospital’s nurses.

The hospital disregarded the arbitrator’s order to stop pattern scheduling, believing the arbitrator’s order ignored the provisions of the CBA that addressed the bargaining rights of full-time nurses and stating that full-time nurses had regularly worked 8, 10, or 12 hour shifts for 36-40 hours per week. In support of the hospital’s actions to schedule all of its nurses for the 12/72 hour shifts, the CBA contained a broadly written hospital rights provision, which arguably supported the hospital’s decision that nurses working 36 hours a week would be considered full-time. Under the provision, the hospital retained sole and exclusive right to determine the number of hours and which days to be worked, subject only to the express restrictions governing the exercise of those rights provided in the CBA.

However, the court in Office & Professional Employees International Union, v. Crittenton Hospital Medical Center did not find the hospital rights provision relevant in light of the express wording of the CBA prohibiting normal work weeks for part-time employees. The court also took into consideration the absence of a clear definition in the CBA of what constituted full-time employment.

Notably, the court stated that if the CBA had included a better definition for full-time nurses, the hospital would have likely won its case. In fact, the court suggested the following language would have been dispositive: “Full time nurses shall include nurses who work 36-40 hours [per week].” This case serves as a reminder of how critical workplace definitions are to CBA’s and other employment policies. It is also important to carefully review the entire CBA before relying upon just one provision in support of an employment action or policy change.