• Washington Court Rules No Overtime Pay for Missed Rest Breaks during 40-Hour Week
  • September 26, 2011 | Authors: Karen P. Kruse; April Upchurch Olsen
  • Law Firm: Jackson Lewis LLP - Seattle Office
  • A Washington state appeals court has ruled that employees who miss state-mandated rest breaks during their regular 40-hour workweek assignments are not entitled to overtime compensation for the missed rest breaks. The Court held that the plaintiff-nurses were entitled only to straight-time compensation under the Washington Minimum Wage Act because they did not work in excess of 40 hours during the week they missed a rest break. The break periods were included in, and a part of, their 40-hour week. Washington State Nurses' Assn. v. Sacred Heart Med. Ctr., No. 29366-1-III (Wash. Ct. App. Aug. 25, 2011).

    Nurses Claim Two Sources for Overtime Pay
    The nurses' union sued the employer hospital, Sacred Heart Medical Center, for allegedly violating Washington's Minimum Wage Act (MWA) by failing to pay them overtime for missed rest breaks. The nurses' claim involved only rest breaks that were missed during the first 40 hours of a nurse's workweek.
     
    The union had previously arbitrated a grievance contending Sacred Heart did not consistently provide two 15-minute rest breaks during an eight-hour day as required by the parties' collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The arbitrator ordered Sacred Heart to ensure that nurses get their breaks and to pay them for any past missed rest breaks at a straight-time rate. Sacred Heart then implemented a system to track missed breaks and to record time associated with them. Nurses were thereafter paid 15 minutes at their regular rates for all missed breaks. The nurses' union then brought suit under the MWA seeking overtime, instead of straight-time, compensation for any rest breaks missed during the first 40 hours of a nurse's workweek.

    The MWA generally requires an employer to pay overtime for all hours worked by a non-exempt employee in excess of 40 per week. "Hours worked" is defined in Washington as including "all hours during which the employee is authorized or required by the employer to be on duty on the employer's premises or at a prescribed workplace."  A state industrial welfare regulation requires employers to afford non-exempt employees a paid 10-minute rest break for every four-hour period worked, and the nurses' CBA with the hospital required Sacred Heart to provide two 15-minute rest breaks during an eight-hour workday.

    In their suit, the nurses claimed that Sacred Heart violated the MWA by failing to pay them time-and-one-half overtime for 10-minute portions of the breaks they missed during the first 40 hours worked in a given workweek. They conceded it was proper to pay them straight-time for the remaining five minutes of break time required only by the CBA, not by the Washington regulation.  Sacred Heart responded that the straight-time compensation the nurses received for the missed breaks was sufficient because the breaks were included in, not in excess of, the nurses' 40-hour workweek. The nurses countered that when a state-mandated rest break is missed, it constitutes additional "hours worked" that should be added to their other hours worked during the week and, if the sum exceeds 40 hours, they should receive overtime pay. In effect, they argued that a missed break extends their workday by 10 minutes and this "extension" took them beyond a 40-hour workweek, entitling them to overtime pay.

    The trial court sided with the nurses and entered judgment for them, awarding more than $327,000, including double damages and attorney’s fees for willful withholding of wages. Sacred Heart appealed.

    Missed Breaks Provided Additional Labor Compensated at Straight Time
    The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and dismissed the suit, holding that the nurses' characterization of a missed break as "extending" the workweek was inaccurate. The Court found it more accurate to describe a missed rest period as providing the employer with additional labor during the workday than treating this as an extension of the workday. It reasoned that the entitlement to time-and-one-half under the MWA turns on the amount of time an employee actually is required to spend at the prescribed workplace, with no reference to the number of hours she or he is "deemed" to have worked.

    Accordingly, because the additional labor was provided during, not after, the employee's work assignment, and because the nurses' claims were for rest periods missed during the first 40 hours of a given workweek, the Court held the 40-hour workweek was not exceeded and "neither the language of, nor the policy reflected by, the MWA comes into play." It dismissed the lawsuit in its entirety as Sacred Heart had already paid straight-time for the missed breaks.

    Dissent
    Judge Stephen M. Brown dissented. He agreed with the trial court's finding. However, because of the lack of legal authority regarding missed rest periods as hours worked, he disagreed with the trial court's grant of double damages. Sacred Heart’s conduct was not "willful" as required for double damages because it had a bona fide dispute about its obligation to pay these wages.

    * * *

    Under Washington case law (Wingert v. Yellow Freight), when an employee misses a mandated rest period, the employee may claim compensation for the additional work performed while the employee was entitled to take a break. However, Washington appellate courts have not previously addressed whether this compensation should be paid at a straight-time or overtime rate. Therefore, this decision allows employers to pay straight-time for rest breaks missed during an employee's first 40 hours in the workweek. It also points up the need for Washington employers to ensure that they have appropriate procedures to allow their non-exempt employees to take the required rest and meal breaks. As this case well illustrates, break violations can be costly, even when only small amounts of time are involved, due to the availability of double damages and attorney's fees and costs as additional employee remedies where there is no bona fide dispute about the underlying obligation.