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Special Considerations in Employment Law: The Nursing Industry

Professionals in the medical industry and legal world typically do not qualify for the same protections as workers in other areas, as these professions have not been historically plagued by the levels of unfair wages and overtime abuse. However, blanket exemptions from the protections of the law tend to leave some workers in the affected field vulnerable. This can lead to some interesting “stop-gap” measures and laws that provide a patchwork of protection to prevent potential damage to important members of the workforce. Such a patchwork exists in the nursing industry in California as some nurses are considered to be exempt from the wage and hour protections of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act while others are not. Laws such as California’s nurse-to-patient ratio law were designed to ensure that nurses are protected even if they are exempt.

Classification of “Nurses”

While many people may believe that they have a good idea of what a nurse is, for employment classification purposes, the standard definition may not apply. For example, the general term ‘nurse’ may be used when discussing a wide variety of specialists such as nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, or nurse anesthetists, but also includes registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, operating room nurses, and staff nurses, among many others. Whether a nurse is exempt from the provisions requiring overtime pay and break time depends on the level of specialized education that person needed to obtain in order to become licensed. According to the Department of Labor, registered nurses are generally considered ‘learned professionals’ similar to doctors or lawyers and are therefore exempt because they are required to pass stringent requirements placed on them by a state examining board. Other nurses are not considered exempt as they are not required to obtain as high a level of academic specialization in order to obtain employment in their field.

California Oddity

As many employees in the nursing industry are exempt from wage and hour laws, patients may suffer if a nurse is not allowed breaks or is not paid a fair wage for their labor. California is considered a pioneer in protecting society from overworked nursing staff. This is because in 2004, the state became one of the first in the nation to pass a law requiring a specific nurse to patient ratio in hospitals across the state. Beginning in January of 2004, health care facilities were required to phase in the law’s mandate over a period of five years. What this meant is that by 2009, these facilities were required to have a 1:6 nurse-patient ratio on “general medical-surgical floors.”

Such a strong approach not only helps protect patients by ensuring that the healthcare facility has sufficient staff to care for them, but also protects nurses who otherwise were being forced to work extended shifts of up to 16 hours causing them to be overextended and exhausted. As some California nurses have brought to the public’s attention, the need for the protections provided by the state’s law are not exaggerated.

Moving Forward

A company is only as strong as its workforce and a smart employer will ensure that its workers are performing the duties of their positions in a safe and comfortable environment.  The lawyers at Garcia & Gurney are here to answer your questions about wage and hour protections for all employees in California and can provide high quality representation if necessary.

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