Nurses say they’re forced to work OT
Houston Chronicle | By L.M. Sixel
Mandatory overtime was a common complaint among Texas nurses a few years ago. They said that being required to tack on extra hours or shifts left many of them exhausted, contributed to errors and accidents and made family responsibilities difficult.
The nursing community celebrated in 2009 when Texas became the 15th state to prohibit forcing nurses to work longer than their scheduled shifts. In Texas, hospitals cannot force their registered nurses or vocational nurses to work extra hours or extra shifts except in natural disasters or other un-expected circumstances.
So five registered nurses at St. Luke's Hospital in the Vintage in north Harris County believed they were on high ground when they complained to hospital management that they had to schedule a 12-hour on-call shift every two weeks in addition to their regular full-time workloads.
The nurses reportedly didn't get very far with their internal complaints, so they filed a lawsuit recently against the 106-bed, four-story hospital that opened in December 2010. It is part of the The Vintage, a 630-acre planned community at Louetta Road and Texas 249 near Cypress.
Although scheduled as "on call," the nurses always have to work the extra shift, said Alfred Benoit, an employment lawyer in Houston who is representing them.
The on-call requirement is spelled out in the hospital's standard operating procedures manual, Benoit said. He said the nurses can't refuse the extra shift and came to him in frustration after hospital officials told them St. Luke's legal department approved the mandatory on-call policy, citing the exception for "unforeseen events."
Jennifer Friedmann, a spokeswoman for St. Luke's Episcopal Health System, said the hospital cannot comment on pending legal matters.
However, the statute states that a "hospital may not use on-call time as a substitute for mandatory overtime." And it spells out a few limited exceptions in which overtime can be mandatory, including government declarations of emergency or unforeseen events that cannot be prudently anticipated.
It can hardly be considered an "unforeseen event" if the nurses must work an extra shift every two weeks, Benoit said.
Some want overtime
The statute, however, does not prevent nurses from volunteering to work overtime, he said. Many nurses want extra work; he is only representing the nurses who don't.
The Texas Department of State Health Services has jurisdiction over mandatory overtime rules for nurses. But it hasn't received a complaint from the St. Luke's nurses, said spokesman Chris Van Deusen in Austin.
Benoit said he isn't sure why his clients didn't file a complaint but speculates they were under the impression that legal recourse was their only option after hospital administrators reported they believed they were operating within the law.
The state doesn't get a lot of mandatory overtime complaints, Van Deusen said. The National Nurses Organizing Committee-Texas said it hasn't gotten many either since the state law was passed - except from labor and delivery and surgical units.
What's not permitted
Some hospitals in Texas still schedule their nursing staff using on-call mandatory overtime methods, said Paula Littles, lead organizer for the committee in Austin, part of the National Nurses United union. The law is clear those practices aren't permitted, she said.
And to Littles, that's a good thing. She recalled the reasons the union and other nurse advocacy groups put so much effort into ending mandatory overtime in Texas and other states.
Nurses typically work 12-hour shifts, she said, and when they're exhausted after putting in those hours and more, they're at increased risk for accidental needle sticks and musculoskeletal injuries along with mistakes in patient care.
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