There were no parades or fireworks Wednesday, but July 1 was the independence day that so many nurses and hospital caregivers had hoped and battled for. Among those many was Lois Cusick of Mt. Lebanon, who has worked at UPMC’s Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic for 26 years.
She, and all other nurses and caregivers in the state, are now largely immune from management requests to work “mandatory overtime,” the extra hours, nurses say, that frequently were tacked on the end of already long hospital shifts, jeopardizing patient care and making it tough to keep quality nurses.
“This is a huge win. I’ve been a nurse for 30 years. I raised three children doing in-patient nursing,” Ms. Cusick said. “There were so many times I couldn’t go home at the end of my work shift.”
For much of the decade, nurses and the Service Employees International Union have been lobbying for a change in state law that would restrict hospitals’ ability to force nurses and support staff to work overtime hours. Fourteen other states have similar laws and regulations on the books.
Pennsylvania’s law was signed by the governor last fall, and went into effect on Wednesday. “Seven years we’ve been fighting for this,” said Deb Bonn, director of the Nurse Alliance of SEIU Pennsylvania
Now, “when they go to work in the morning, they know what time they are getting out.”
It’s not just a vague quality-of-life issue — uncertainty over hours is a major reason that nurses leave the field, many say. In Pennsylvania, nurses must re-register for nursing licenses every two years, and each time they do so, they must fill out a survey that asks about job satisfaction (and dissatisfaction). Every year, the unpredictable overtime hours, compounded by lack of staffing, are high on the list of issues that push nurses out of the health-care industry.
“It’s critical,” said Cathy Stoddard, a longtime nurse at Allegheny General Hospital, which hasn’t imposed mandatory overtime upon its union workforce for six years. “You don’t want the person taking care of you to be so exhausted that they’re making mistakes.”
Even though the SEIU was one of the groups pushing hardest for this change, the new law actually may have a greater effect on non-union personnel. That’s because, in some cases across the state, nurses and other support staff already represented by unions have negotiated limits on the number of overtime mandates that can be issued each month.
Non-union nurses and support staff — including nursing home workers, radiology aides, lab workers, phlebotomists, surgical technicians — are more likely to see an immediate change in the workplace.
The new law doesn’t mean that nurses and caregivers will never work any overtime. They can still volunteer for extra hours, for example. And there are certain “last resort” events that would trigger a hospital’s ability to require its employees to work overtime — a major accident, or a natural disaster, or any other national, state or municipal emergency.
Chronic understaffing is not considered an “unforeseeable emergent circumstance” by the law, and thus isn’t a circumstance that would allow for mandatory overtime.
The state Department of Labor and Industry is charged with making sure hospitals and other care institutions are meeting the new guidelines, and seeing to it that “an employer [does] not retaliate against an employee who refuses to work overtime.”
If that happens, hospitals may be subject to fines or other corrective measures for any facility that breaks the law, known as Act 102.
What will hospitals and care homes do now that the state has put the kibosh on forced overtime? Hire more nurses and support staff, for one thing. Employers also can borrow nurses from employee banks.
And what if nurses encounter a manager who is requiring them to work overtime? Depends on the situation. If the nurse is in a union, the SEIU says that the nurse should consider refusing to work the hours. But workers without a union might be better off working as directed, then filing a complaint with Labor and Industry after the fact. Complaint forms are available online at www.dli.state.pa.us/landi/lib/landi/laws-regulations/llc/Act102ClaimForm.pdf.