On October 9, 2008, Governor Ed Rendell provided a victory for nurses’ unions by signing the Prohibition on Excessive Overtime in Health Care Act. The Act prohibits employers from mandating overtime for direct patient caregivers, including nurses and nurses’ assistants, in Pennsylvania’s hospitals and health care facilities. Effective July 1, 2009, hospitals and health care facilities will be prohibited from requiring nurses and nurses’ assistants to work hours beyond a predetermined, regularly scheduled daily work shift. The Act also includes an anti-retaliation provision, which prohibits employers from retaliating against workers who refuse to work extra hours.

The new law contains a relatively narrow exception, permitting employers to mandate overtime in certain unforeseen emergency circumstances. These circumstances include the following:

  • A declared national, state or municipal emergency
  • A highly unusual or extraordinary event that substantially affects the provision of needed health care services or increases the need for health care services
  • An act of terrorism
  • A natural disaster
  • A widespread disease outbreak
  • An unexpected absence, discovered at or before the commencement of a scheduled shift, which could not be prudently planned for by an employer, and which could significantly affect patient safety. (This cannot be used to overcome habitual short-staffing.)  

If such an emergency occurs, the employer is permitted to mandate overtime as a last resort and only after: (1) exhausting reasonable efforts to obtain other staffing; and (2) providing the employee with up to one hour to arrange for the care of the employee’s minor child, or elderly or disabled family member.

While the statute does not address whether this Act supersedes any provisions in an existing collective bargaining agreement that permits an employer to mandate overtime, the legislative history and prior case law suggest that such a provision would continue “as is” until the expiration of that labor agreement.