With increasing volume, hospital administrators across Washington have joined health care workers and the unions that represent them in calling attention to the unprecedented staffing crisis. But today, nurses and other frontline workers are calling on hospitals to use the tools and resources they have available to finally begin mitigating this crisis for workers and patients.
“We’ve heard near-unanimous agreement around the problem,” said Julia Barcott, a critical care nurse in Toppenish and WSNA union leader. “That’s great. But only one voice in this conversation has the ability to immediately begin fixing this problem, and that’s the hospitals. It’s past time we saw meaningful action and policy changes from them, for the sake of our frontline workers and for patients and families across the state.”
Healthcare union spokespersons claim there are a number of policies hospital administrations could immediately enact that would help begin to alleviate some of the burnout on nurses and improve conditions for workers and patients, including:
-Ending mandatory overtime policies and ensuring workers can safely take rest breaks to return to compliance with already-existing state law.
-Retention bonuses for frontline workers who have stayed on the job, which would ostensibly help offset hospitals’ apparent need for massive signing bonuses for new staff.
-Incentive pay for burned-out workers who take on additional shifts.
-Incentive pay and appropriate orientation for workers who take on extra work or shifts in a department they don’t work in.
-Posting enough positions in all job categories to achieve safe staffing levels.
-Actively working to fill all open positions
“We’re asking for just compensation and recognition for the work we’ve all been doing and the fact we’ve stayed on the job,” said Tracy Mullen, a nurse in the emergency department at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle and member of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW. “Imagine spending the entirety of this pandemic at the bedside, and the person next to you is a traveling nurse making upwards of three- to four-times as much while the hospital apparently can’t find resources for retention bonuses or incentive pay.”
According to the unions, to understand the magnitude of the current staffing crisis, it’s critical to understand that a staffing shortage in Washington hospitals persisted long before the pandemic.
Health care workers and their unions say for years they have warned the state’s hospitals about short-staffing and the potentially dire consequences.
“Had hospitals taken action to address adequate staffing years ago, we wouldn’t be facing such an extreme shortage now while we battle this pandemic,” the unions said in a joint statement.
The unions say COVID exacerbated this already strained infrastructure, and hospitals’ response to the pandemic — including slowly filling open positions, falling back on mandatory overtime, and spending resources on signing bonuses and traveling positions rather than existing staff retention — has only worsened this preexisting shortage and led to massive burnout among workers.
“Large signing bonuses, filling positions with traveling staff, asking the federal government for emergency staff capacity — all of these are stopgap measures,” said Faye Guenther, president of UFCW 21. “You won’t reduce the need for these expensive, short-term fixes until you address the underlying problems causing burned-out health care workers to leave the bedside. In the long run the only way we’re going to see this crisis start to get better for workers and patients is for hospitals to step up and apply even a portion of that energy and those resources towards making the day-to-day working conditions of their nurses and other staff manageable.”