Healthcare workers implore lawmakers to enact staffing laws

Legislative sessions are going on across the country, and many of the AFT's healthcare affiliates are ready to lobby their state legislators to take steps to fix the staffing shortage in hospitals. Nurses and health professionals have sounded the alarm about staffing shortages for years, warning that it puts them and their patients at risk. 

Connecticut nurses
AFT photo

“We need state and federal legislation right now," said AFT President Randi Weingarten during a Jan. 23 press conference held by AFT Connecticut to announce its support for proposals that would address unsafe staffing, establish safe patient limits and protect vital health services in the state. “If you help us, we will be able to help patients more,” Weingarten said. “People who go into healthcare want to make a difference in the lives of others. Help us do it. Don’t let us deal with the dangerous conditions that are getting worse.”

Crystal Badeau, a patient care technician at Windham Hospital and a member of AFT Connecticut, asked lawmakers to listen to healthcare workers and make hospitals safer. “I love what I do and couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” said Badeau. “All we want to do is make sure our patients are safe.”

“I'm tired of seeing a profession that I love destroyed. We feel defeated. We feel like failures. We signed up to make people better,” said Sherri Dayton, an emergency room nurse at Backus Hospital and president of the Backus Federation of Nurses. “When we can't do that, it causes us moral injury.” Dayton, also a member of AFT Connecticut, asked lawmakers to think about the risk of not passing legislation to address staffing. “We will continue to lose health professionals; your communities will continue to have poor outcomes. Help make this profession that I love better.”

For years the AFT’s nurses and health professionals have protested with informational pickets and have gone on strike or threatened strikes because their hospitals lacked adequate staffing. They have demanded change because chronic understaffing harms both patients and workers and makes it harder to recruit and retain workers, with many leaving the profession. They are not alone: Earlier this year, thousands of nurses in New York went on strike to demand safer standards. And in the United Kingdom, where hospitals in the National Health System are also experiencing shortages, healthcare workers represented by the Royal College of Nursing and UNISON, the UK's largest union, are holding strike actions to demand pay raises and improved working conditions. In letters to both unions, the AFT has pledged solidarity with their members.

Washington State Nurses Association
WSNA photo

A recent AFT report on healthcare staffing shortages found workers were routinely exposed to increasing levels of workplace violence, and patient loads were stretched to unprecedented and unsafe levels. The result for workers is an overall sense of exhaustion, moral injury and distress at the demands of their job—a job they love doing but say they cannot continue without more support from their employers. That’s why AFT healthcare members in Alaska, Connecticut, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon and Washington are urging state legislators to pass laws to solve staffing issues.

In Washington, a coalition of healthcare workers that includes members of the Washington State Nurses Association relaunched a campaign to urge state legislators to pass safe staffing standards for hospitals to address the state’s worsening staffing crisis. The WA Safe + Healthy campaign was created a year ago to pass safe staffing legislation that would protect any nurse or healthcare worker from being assigned too many patients at a time and ensure that hospitals hire enough staff to ensure patient and worker safety.

Kelli Johnson, a nurse at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Wash., testified in support of legislation last year and hoped it would pass. It did not, and staffing got worse, said Johnson, a WSNA member. “The shortage is not nurses; the shortage is safe work environments. No amount of money can keep nurses from repeatedly experiencing moral injury and burnout.”

Oregon Nurses Association
ONA photo

The Oregon Nurses Association will continue to support the work of its Safe Staffing Saves Lives campaign—a statewide campaign to support new legislation ONA is proposing that will address healthcare staffing. It is calling on the Oregon Legislature to mandate minimum staffing requirements for hospital nurses and close loopholes around meal and break times.

“Nurses are overwhelmed; they are not able to take rest or meal breaks. Waiting times for treatment grow longer, patients become more frustrated and workplace violence increases,” said Matt Calzia, ONA’s director of nursing practice and professional development. “Nurses grow more exhausted and stressed, and as their mental health suffers, they experience profound moral injuries. Hospitals exploit the pandemic by arbitrarily declaring “crisis” staffing and refusing to follow staffing laws, and state agencies refuse to enforce the laws, which allow unsafe staffing conditions to fester.”

Meanwhile, the AFT is highlighting its 2022 “Healthcare Staffing Shortage Task Force Report,” which includes several proven strategies and a road map to address the crisis at every level—national, state, sector and facility. “We need to have protections,” said Weingarten, noting that most healthcare systems will not do the right thing when it comes to staffing. “We need legislation to force them to do the right thing.”

[Adrienne Coles]