Trap to Avoid

Keeping Lab Employees On Call during Breaks without Paying Them for the Time

Does this sound familiar? A hospital lab needs around the clock staffing so that tests for acutely ill patients in the ER can be performed at any time without delay. But staffing is tight and often lab technician Ms. W is the only employee on duty. During her 12-hour shifts, hospital personnel rely on her as the “go-to” person for lab testing, including during her 30-minute meal breaks. The hospital’s policy is that meal breaks don’t count as compensable work. Ms. W believes this is unfair and sues for unpaid wages during breaks. The state labor standards tribunal rules in her favor and the hospital appeals.

Ruling

The Colorado court finds the tribunal’s decision reasonable and refuses to set it aside.

Reasoning

Under the Colorado Minimum Wage Order (MWO), employees who work more than five consecutive hours are entitled to a “duty free” meal break of at least 30 minutes. The break can be treated as uncompensated non-work time, provided that the employee is “completely relieved of all duties and permitted to pursue personal activities.”

According to the court, the tribunal was justified in finding that Ms. W’s meal breaks weren’t “duty free.” On the contrary, she was basically “on call” during her break periods and required to:

  • Carry the lab phone and respond to all lab calls;
  • Leave a sign at the lab instructing nurses to call her back to work when dropping off specimens;
  • Answer questions from hospital doctors, nurses and paramedics about lab tests, equipment and instruments.

Ms. W also had to stay on hospital grounds at all times during her break, which precluded her from pursuing “personal interests” during that time. As a result, the hospital had to pay her several years’ worth of break time (except for a brief period after which it changed its work break compensation policy) and penalties [HCA-HealthONE LLC v. Colo. Dep’t of Labor & Empl., 2020 COA 52, 2020 Colo. App. LEXIS 658].

Takeaway

 The HCA case is of obvious relevance to the current COVID-19 pandemic where demands for testing is at record levels, staffing is short and just about all lab personnel are overworked. And while the case took place in Colorado, the same basic fair wage rules and principles apply in all parts of the country. Moreover, those laws remain very much in play, even during the pandemic. Specifically, there are points lab managers need to keep in mind when managing staff during the emergency:

  • Employees who work long shifts, typically five hours or more, are entitled to meal breaks, the length of which varies by state;
  • The ideal situation is letting employees have their break time all to themselves;
  • Where the nature of the business or other circumstances make that impractical, you’re allowed to interrupt employees and keep them on call during breaks; and
  • What you can’t do is expect employees to be available during their breaks and then treat break time as non-work time.

Bottom Line: If you expect employees to be available for lab duties during breaks, you must compensate them for the time, regardless of whether you actually do call on them during a particular break.

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