Rest for the weary

EMPLOYEES AT THE Salvation Army’s battered women’s shelter are finally getting some rest.

On June 5, a county judge ruled that the Salvation Army has to provide the same rest and meal breaks as other Washington employers to graveyard shift workers at its battered women’s shelter, the Catherine Booth House. Four crisis counselors sued the organization last year, alleging that they were forced to work eight-hour shifts at the shelter, alone, without state-mandated rest, meal, or bathroom breaks; if they wanted to leave their post, the women said, they had to bring the phone with them—even into the bathroom.

Salvation Army spokesperson Mike Seely says the organization has “always felt we’ve given people fair breaks.” But a policy change implemented earlier this year suggests otherwise. In January, the Booth House issued a memo stating that from that point forward, “any employee who wishes to take a 15-minute break from their hectic work schedule during the swing or grave shift may do so.” The policy set up procedures for forwarding crisis calls, which make up the bulk of the crisis counselors’ duties. Before then, the plaintiffs said, they had to take “breaks” between calls, which made it impossible for them to “anticipate having an uninterrupted period of even 10 minutes in which to rest, eat, make an uninterrupted telephone call, or go to the bathroom,” according to the women’s affidavits.

The summary judgment issued this month suggests that even those changes aren’t enough; to count as a real “break,” says the women’s attorney, Dmitri Iglitzen, a rest period has to allow employees to leave the building, go outside, or at least get away from the phone. “The Salvation Army said, ‘We let them eat.’ We argued that if the Department of Labor and Industry had wanted the regulations to say you cannot starve your employees, they would have said [so],” Iglitzen says.

Seely says the Salvation Army hasn’t decided yet whether to appeal the decision. If they do, the case will go to trial in July; if not, the organization could have to pay the women thousands of dollars in back pay as compensation for breaks they never received.

Erica C. Barnett