By Attorney Michael J. Sacopulos and Dr. Erik P. Southard DNP, FNP-BC
Q: We can call in sick up to three hours before our shift. I woke up sick last
I became weak with cold symptoms and past the magic three hours, so I went to work. It was an exhausting shift. I could hardly think straight and my replacement nurse did not show up.
The scheduler said that no per diem nurse will come in for this shift. My supervisor said I will be fired for job abandonment if I went home. I had to work another eight hours. I was really concerned I was not giving proper care.
Who would be liable, if I made a mistake? Does just stating that I don’t feel capable of doing another shift enough to protect me?
A: While your situation is unfortunate, it is not shocking. We hear of nurses forced to work overtime with some regularity. Your questions need to be examined on two fronts; the duties to your employer and the duties to your patients. Federal Law states that more than 40 hours per week is considered overtime. Federal Law does not specify hours per day or shifts in a row, but
simply looks at a 40 hour work week. However, many states have specific laws that relate to the number of hours worked in a day. Your question does not specify where you live so we recommend you check with a local attorney.
We can tell you that 16 states have statues and regulations specifically addressing overtime requirements for nurses. How many hours one can work and compensation rates vary by state. Your questions seem to get at the heart of the
matter. As a nurse you have both legal and ethical duties to your patients. We can tell you that both could be liable if you make a mistake while treating a patient. Your actions will be judged by the normal standard of care for a nurse performing the duties in question. The standard of care does not factor in how tired or overworked you were at the time.
You owe both a legal and ethical duty to your patient to provide quality care. Those duties do not change because a supervisor requests you work a
double shift. We point out that a number of states have specific regulations that address this topic. Further, the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses
offers some assistance on this topic. While every situation is different, as a general rule we advise that the downside risks of working beyond what you feel is safe are far greater than negative employment consequences. Be safe and thanks for the question.
The President and CEO of Southard & Associates L.L.C. Erik, Director of the Doctor of Nursing Practice Program and Assistant Professor in the Department of Advanced Practice Nursing at Indiana State University, enjoys teaching and serving his alma mater. He continues to work as a family nurse practitioner treating patients of all ages for acute and chronic health conditions. He is a proud graduate of Vincennes University, Indiana State University and Johns Hopkins University. He is an avid outdoors man and loves spending time with his
family. Erik resides in Terre Haute, IN with his wife Rebekah and daughter Breanna.
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