Unions launch WA Safe + Healthy campaign seeking safe staffing levels

Today, three Washington unions representing nurses announced a campaign to push state lawmakers to pass safe staffing level legislation during the 2022 session. 

The campaign, called WA Safe + Healthy, was created by a coalition encompassing the Washington State Nurses Association, UFCW 21 and SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, which collectively represent 71,000 health care workers in the state. Specific details of the plan have not been finalized, but organizers anticipate filing legislation before the upcoming session begins in early January. 

 

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David Keepnews, executive director for the Washington State Nurses Association, said during a press conference on Dec. 13, that even before the pandemic, hospital executives were cutting staffing levels to increase profits. The pandemic has only increased burnout and turnover for nurses, he said.

“For almost two years, nurses and health care workers have worked longer and longer hours and put their lives at risk to protect all of us,” Keepnews said. 

Julia Barcott, an ICU nurse and cabinet chair of the Washington State Nurses Association, said she’s seen nurses leaving during the pandemic. Many left to work as traveling nurses, where wages are significantly higher, or went to other jobs in the medical industry to escape the stress of bedside nursing. 

The Washington Post reported that traveling nurses can earn an entire year’s wages in just a few months. One nurse interviewed earned about $95 an hour. 

“We are simply worn down and burnt out,” Barcott said. 

This has led to a scramble to cover staffing needs, even as hospital executives are spending significantly more money to pay for traveling nurses, she said. It has also led students considering a career in nursing to reconsider. 

The Safe + Healthy campaign conducted a poll among its members, and reported that 84% felt burnt out, and nearly half said they’re likely to leave the health care profession in the next few years. Among those who said they were thinking of leaving, 70% said the practice of short staffing was one of the major reasons why. 

While details of the proposed legislation haven’t been released, the campaign is calling on lawmakers to pass safe staffing standards to avoid “dangerously high patient loads and create adequate enforcement to ensure hospitals follow them.” 

It also calls on legislators to enforce existing overtime and meal and rest break laws, and invest in workforce development to increase the number of health care workers entering the field. 

Staff shortages in Washington have been reported in areas ranging from nursing homes to hospitals