On October 25, 2012, the Washington Supreme Court held that approximately 1,200 registered nurses in Spokane, Washington were entitled to overtime compensation under the Washington Minimum Wage Act when the nurses worked through their rest periods.

In Washington State Nurses Association v. Sacred Heart Medical Center, No. 86563-9, the Washington State Nurses Association (“WSNA”) filed suit against Sacred Heart Medical Center (“Sacred Heart”) claiming that nurses who missed their rest breaks should be compensated for this time at overtime rates. The nurses at Sacred Heart were covered by a collective bargaining agreement that mandated two 15 minute rest breaks during an eight hour workday, although Washington law only requires 10 minute rest periods. WSNA and Sacred Heart did not dispute that when a nurse missed a rest period, Sacred Heart provided the nurses with the equivalent of 30 minutes of straight time compensation: the 15 minutes they would have received had they merely rested, as well as 15 additional minutes for instead working during that period. According to the Washington Supreme Court, the case hinged on how “hours worked” are calculated—whether the 15 minutes the nurses spent working through their breaks should be added to or substituted for the 15 minutes they would have spent at rest.

In issuing its decision the Washington Supreme Court discussed its previous decision in Wingert v. Yellow Freight Systems, Inc., 146 Wn.2d 841 (2002), where the Washington Supreme Court found that an employer’s failure to provide a required 10 minute rest period extended the workday by 10 minutes. In Wingert, the employer required its employees to begin a two-hour overtime shift immediately after completion of their normal shift, without a rest break in between in violation of Washington law. The court found that working through a break effectively extended the employees’ workday by 10 minutes and they were therefore entitled to an additional 10 minutes of overtime compensation. Relying on Wingert and federal law, the Washington Supreme Court stated in Sacred Heart Medical Center that “[b]ecause both the rest break time and additional labor time constitute ‘hours worked,’ nurses’ workdays were extended by 15 minutes when they missed breaks.” Because in this case the additional “hours worked” extended the nurses workweek beyond 40 hours, the overtime provisions of the Washington Minimum Wage Act were triggered for the first 10 minutes of each break missed.

Employers need to be careful how they treat employees that work through rest periods provided for by law. When employees are so busy that they cannot take a rest period on certain days, employers need to be aware that this time worked will be counted as additional “hours worked” under Washington law and will be viewed as extending the employee’s workweek and possibly triggering overtime obligations if the “hours worked” exceeds 40 hours in the week. This is true even if the employee isn’t physically at the job site more than 8 hours on that day or 40 hours total for the week.