New state law provides Washington nurses with uninterrupted meal and rest breaks

click to enlarge Pictured: Not a casino.
Pictured: Not a casino.

While they likely won't be taking the time to 'play cards', a new law signed by Gov. Jay Inslee will provide nurses and other health care employees in Washington uninterrupted meal and rest breaks.

Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane) sponsored the bill, which he says has been discussed in some form or another for years. He says it's a win for nurses and patients.

"This is a patient safety issue," Riccelli says. "We don't want our nurses fatigued."


The bill gained national attention when state Sen. Maureen Walsh (R-Walla Walla) argued for an exemption for Critical Access Hospitals. In her comments, Walsh said nurses in those smaller hospitals "probably do get breaks — they probably play cards for a considerable amount of the day." The comments drew swift backlash from nurses around the country who read national headlines making it seem like Walsh was referring to all nurses. (Walsh has since apologized for the comments.)

The final bill includes all hospitals, but with a two-year delay for critical access hospitals and some other small hospitals.

Lindsey Kirsch, a member of the Washington State Nurses Association, says the comments "touched a nerve" with nurses because of how hard nurses work and how in many cases, smaller hospitals have fewer resources and nurses are more overworked as a result.

"People who have nurses in their families or who have been in a hospital, they see that nurses have to do more with less, and that we are being required to do more and more," Kirsch says. "I will honestly say there are shifts where I maybe get to the bathroom once in 12 hours."


The bill allows for 12-hour shifts, but it requires that employees working more than 12 consecutive hours must be given the option to take at least eight hours of uninterrupted time off afterward. Hospitals must provide employees with meal and rest periods that are uninterrupted, except in certain situations like an emergency. Kirsch says the law will provide "much needed" breaks and overtime protections for nurses that will help improve patient safety.

"I think it's precedent-setting," Kirsch says. "It is really critical to have somebody who is able to completely present and not exhausted at [a patient's] side." 

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About The Author

Wilson Criscione, born and raised in Spokane, is an Inlander staff writer covering education and social services in the Inland Northwest.