Washington state nurses join coalition to demand safe staffing legislation

A coalition of healthcare workers in Washington is calling on lawmakers to pass legislation that will address the hospital staffing crisis in their state. The Washington State Nurses Association/AFT is part of the coalition with UFCW 21 and SEIU Healthcare 1199NW. Coalition members say that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated long-standing short-staffing issues in their state. Healthcare workers have asked hospital executives for help to make their jobs manageable and to improve safety for healthcare workers and patients, but they've been ignored.

That’s why the coalition's WA Safe + Healthy campaign is focused on getting their lawmakers to pass safe staffing standards that protect healthcare workers from dangerously high patient loads and create adequate enforcement to ensure hospitals follow them. The coalition is also asking for legislation to enforce existing overtime and meal-and-rest-break laws, as well as an investment in workforce development to increase the number of healthcare workers entering the field.

Safe Staffing Standards Now!

In January, at the start of the state legislative session, a bill was introduced to improve worker safety and patient care in healthcare facilities by addressing staffing needs, overtime, meal and rest breaks, and enforcement. On Jan. 19, several health professionals who are part of the coalition as well as members of the community, gave public testimony in support of safe staffing provisions in that legislation to Washington state representatives on the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee.  

“Nurses want to work with hospitals to solve unsafe staffing,” said nurse Kelly Johnson during her testimony. “There is existing language at our hospital made possible by our union” to support an environment in which safe staffing is addressed by a team through staffing committees. “Even with this, hospitals are not honoring decisions made by the staffing committees,” said Johnson. “They’re not listening to the devastating concerns of nurses. ... State legislation is needed to hold hospitals accountable.”

“It's scary for patients when there aren't enough nurses available,” said Stephanie Simpson, executive director of the Bleeding Disorder Foundation of Washington, who spoke in support of the legislation. “When a person is overworked, they are not able to tend to all the details. And this is just human nature; but for rare disease patients, the details matter, and mistakes can be deadly," said Simpson.

Simpson also said the loss of "seasoned" nurses could be harmful because they "pass on their knowledge and experience to less experienced nurses. She also noted the use of travel nurses to fill the gap: “Travel nurses can be great, but they also don't know the community and medical system in Washington, and this can be critical for rare disease patients.”

“While we hear our hospitals say they are concerned about staffing, their actions tell us otherwise,” said Julia Barcott, a critical care nurse and Washington State Nurses Association member, who testified in support of the legislation. “We have heard hospitals say that this bill is too expensive or too hard to implement during a pandemic, but from my perspective, we can’t afford to continue the way that we are going.”

[Adrienne Coles]