Washington hospitals must do better to keep nurses on the job

Sally eileen

Sally Watkins (left) and Eileen Cody (right)

WSNA submitted this op-ed to the Tacoma News Tribune. It ran on Jan. 9, 2021.

Washington, like every other state in the nation, is facing a dire shortage of nurses as COVID-19 cases push hospi­tals to the brink of capacity.

Hospi­tals in Texas are currently utilizing Crisis Standards of Care. Oklahoma is allowing asymp­to­matic COVID-positive nurses to continue working. North Dakota hospi­tals are offering up to $8,000 per week to recruit travel nurses.

Nurses across the country now face the choice of staying in their current positions under tremen­dous pressure and regular wages – or hightailing to another state where traveler payment is high and includes paid lodging and meals.

As Kaiser Health News recently put it: Early in the pandemic, hospi­tals were competing for venti­la­tors, COVID tests and personal protec­tive equip­ment. Now, sites across the country are competing for nurses. The fall surge in COVID cases has turned hospital staffing into a sort of national bidding war…”

So how do we ensure Washington will retain critical nurses and health care workers when other states put forward more lucra­tive offers?

Washington hospi­tals must do better by nurses and health care workers to keep them safe and keep them on the job, where we all so desper­ately need them. This is especially critical right now in Pierce County where the soaring numbers of patients and COVID outbreaks in hospi­tals are pushing nurses to a breaking point. There are things hospi­tals can and should do now.

Hospi­tals must ensure health care workers have proper PPE, especially when treating COVID-positive or suspected COVID patients. Despite restored supply chains and hospi­tals reporting large quanti­ties of PPE to the state, many are still being asked to go without N‑95 masks when treating COVID-positive or suspected COVID patients.

Even as the vaccine rolls out in Washington state, hospi­tals must provide timely COVID test results so that nurses and other health care workers are not stuck home waiting on results – many have already depleted their paid time off confronting this crisis. Hospi­tals have prior­i­tized faster tests for patients, while hospital employees’ COVID tests are being sent out-of-state for processing. This has led to nurses being out of work for 3 – 10 days waiting on test results. This cannot continue.

Hospi­tals should support the extra­or­di­nary work of their front­line staff under unprece­dented circum­stances by offering COVID relief pay and should help alleviate the staffing shortage by incen­tivizing nurses to pick up additional shifts – ideas most Washington hospi­tals have thus far rejected. Yet, a Washington nurse can leave for North Dakota and make a monthly salary in a week. Washington nurses and health care workers deserve recog­ni­tion for their work on the front­lines – and retaining them may require it.

While Governor Inslee has directed the Depart­ment of Labor & Indus­tries to assume workplace exposure for health care workers for purposes of workers compen­sa­tion, many exposed nurses and health care workers are still being told by hospi­tals that they acquired COVID through commu­nity trans­mis­sion” even when they’ve been surrounded by COVID patients at work – a tactic partially used to avoid providing paid admin­is­tra­tive leave to staff who must quaran­tine. It’s past time for hospi­tals to start following govern­ment orders and common sense.

To address this crisis, the Washington State Hospital Associ­a­tion has suggested that Washington should join the Nurse Licen­sure Compact to allow nurses from other states to fill positions here. Yet nearly every state in the country is currently reeling from nurse staffing short­ages – including states in the Nurse Licen­sure Compact like Texas, Oklahoma and North Dakota. Even the heads of organi­za­tions overseeing the Nurse Licen­sure Compact say, it’s impor­tant to mention that the NLC does not purport to alleviate a state nursing shortage.”

Our hospi­tals must prior­i­tize the wellbeing of nurses and health care workers not only because we need their skills throughout this pandemic, but also because they are our neigh­bors, friends and commu­nity members. Joining a nation­wide bidding war isn’t the answer. We should be taking care of our own so they can continue to care for us.

Sally Watkins is the execu­tive director of the Washington State Nurses Associ­a­tion and a regis­tered nurse.

Repre­sen­ta­tive Eileen Cody is the chair of the House Health Care & Wellness Committee and a regis­tered nurse.