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Our fight for safe staffing

As we entered the third year of the coronavirus pandemic, nurses and health care workers across Washington linked arms to fight for our jobs and our health system.

This story was published in the Spring-Summer 2022 issue of The Washington Nurse magazine.

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As we entered the third year of the coronavirus pandemic, nurses and health care workers across Washington linked arms to fight for our jobs and our health system. A three-union coalition—WSNA, SEIU Healthcare 1199 NW and UFCW 3000 (formerly UFCW 21)—formed the WA Safe + Healthy campaign, combined our resources and strength to fight for legislation that would have required minimum safe staffing standards across the state.

Our bill—HB 1868—took a holistic approach to the staffing crisis, most directly by requiring that health care facilities meet evidence-based staffing levels. It created strong accountability mechanisms, protected meal and rest breaks and put tools in our hands to make our jobs sustainable and safe.

Thanks to the actions of thousands of WSNA members as well as nurses and health care professionals across the state, we came closer than ever to passing statewide staffing standards in Washington state. As we move forward it’s important to understand what happened in Olympia, how we changed the narrative in Washington state, and the groundwork we laid for the future. We may have lost this particular battle, but we’re not done fighting for safe staffing.

People are leaving health care positions due to many stresses that have been amplified by the pandemic. The single largest and most preventable stressor is inadequate staffing levels.”
— Dustin Weddle, RN — Registered nurse and former combat medic

Legislative wrap-up

The 2022 legislative session lasted just nine weeks from Jan. 10 through March 10, leaving us no time to waste.

We mobilized our full resources — staff, leaders and members — in every corner of the state to make sure legislators heard us loudly and clearly.

Members testified in committee sessions, “signed in” to committee hearings in overwhelming numbers, wrote letters to their elected officials and spoke to the media.

After multiple hearings in the House, HB 1868 advanced to the Senate on a 55-43 vote. SB 5751, the identical companion bill, was shelved in the Senate to consider a single consolidated bill.

Despite strong support from WSNA, our members, the other nurse unions, patient advocates and our legislative champions, the bill died in the Senate Ways & Means Committee.

Despite our disappointment, this legislative session marked one of the most impressive showings we’ve ever achieved in our ongoing fight for safe staffing standards legislation. Most importantly, we built support from legislators who have previously opposed our efforts, giving us a strong basis of support for future legislation.

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New research on nurse staffing

WA Safe + Healthy commissioned a new study (see inset) led by Patricia Pittman, PhD., FAAN, of George Washington University’s Fitzhugh Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity. Dr. Pittman reviewed 30 years of studies on staffing and found that directly mandating staffing standards is the only effective means of legislating staffing, and that such legislation has produced measurable and real benefits for patients and health professionals alike.

Through the WA Safe + Healthy campaign, we promoted the research with a news conference, media releases and social media. We also used the research in meetings with legislators and in communication around our bill. As we move forward to secure safe staffing standards, this research will be a valuable tool for showing lawmakers and the public that there is only one proven way to effectively legislate staffing standards.

Evidence on Hospital Staffing and Outcomes: Implications for Washington State

In the early 2000s, the first studies emerged showing the negative effects on patient mortality of low registered nurse (RN) staffing levels in hospitals. Since that time, state legislators in Washington state and around the country have grappled with the question of how best to ensure public safety and protect the workforce when hospitals do not adequately staff. Read more...

Public support

One thing is clear: the public supports nurses and health professionals. Our WA Safe + Healthy campaign commissioned polling that showed the public strongly backs us and supports our calls for safe, healthy workplaces.

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WSNA nurses in the press

From Spokane to Vancouver, Yakima to Seattle, our WSNA members and leaders helped make the case with powerful interviews in print, and on the radio and TV, telling the public about the situation we face and the solutions we need.

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For the last two years of this pandemic, my colleagues and I have been at the bedside doing our best to take care of our community, despite being unequipped, unsupported by management and at our breaking points.”
— Linda Burbank, RN, Tacoma News Tribune

We won’t stop fighting

Despite years of warnings from nurses, hospital executives have pushed a “lean” model of staffing. The situation was already dire when we entered 2020—and then the pandemic hit.

When WA Safe + Healthy commissioned a representative survey of nurses and health professionals, the numbers were sobering, but not surprising. The study found:

  • 84% feel burned out.
  • Nearly half of nurses and health care workers are likely to leave the field in the next few years.
  • 71% of those who are considering leaving the field said the job is unsustainable because they're constantly short staffed.

Hospitals have shown they can’t be trusted to address this issue. Over the course of our campaign, they offered “solutions” like pizza parties and food trucks. But until we can make the job sustainable, we’ll continue to lose nurses who simply can’t continue. In Washington, there are more than 120,000 licensed registered nurses, but fewer than 60,000 currently are employed in health care settings in the state. There’s not a nurse shortage, as the hospital executives want you to believe—there’s a shortage of nurses who are willing and able to continue working in these conditions.

What comes next

Despite this setback in the legislature this year, WSNA and our coalition partners have no intention of letting this issue die. We plan to continue taking the issue of safe staffing to policymakers and the public. We are currently planning our next steps — in the legislature, at the bargaining table, as well as the option of taking the issue directly to voters if the legislature is unable to act. Safe staffing has been the top priority for our members for many years, and it will remain a top priority for WSNA until we achieve safe staffing in all health care facilities throughout the state.