Press Release

WA healthcare workers take fight for safe staffing standards back to Olympia

Since last session, the hospital staffing crisis has worsened; healthcare workers say safe staffing standards are the solution.

SEATTLE – Today a coalition of healthcare workers relaunched the WA Safe + Healthy campaign, heading back to Olympia to urge legislators to pass safe staffing standards to address the worsening hospital staffing crisis.

The WA Safe + Healthy coalition was first launched a year ago to pass safe staffing standards in the state legislature, which would protect any one nurse or healthcare worker from being assigned too many patients at a time, and ensure that hospitals hire enough staff to ensure patient and worker safety. Efforts during the 2022 legislative session were ultimately unsuccessful, despite more than 5,500 healthcare workers and community members signing up in support during legislative hearings, hours of testimony, and passing legislation out of the House. But healthcare workers, the unions that represent them, and community endorsers are heading back to Olympia for the 2023 session.

Nurses and other healthcare workers warn that the staffing crisis, a result of massive burnout among healthcare workers fueled by unsafe conditions and short staffing, has only gotten worse since last session.

“It’s important for Washingtonians to understand that while many aspects of our lives have returned to normal, the lives and working conditions of healthcare workers have not,” said Jane Hopkins, a registered nurse and president of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW. “Healthcare workers are burned out and beyond their breaking points.”

“One year ago, we told legislators that burnout was driving many of us out of the healthcare field,” said Ade Adeyemo, a certified nursing assistant in the surgical unit at UW Medical Center - Northwest in Seattle and a member of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW. “Without a meaningful fix, burnout only compounds, so the longer it goes, the worse it gets. Many of my coworkers are on the brink of collapse in large part because hospital executives have failed to implement real solutions to ensure safe staffing. It hurts morale to realize that administrators are not prioritizing the wellbeing of healthcare workers, and that makes it even more difficult to recruit and retain qualified caregivers.”

As healthcare workers have continually made clear, the current hospital staffing crisis is a direct result of burnout stemming from years of inadequate staffing. Healthcare workers have continuously worked long hours and put their lives at risk to protect us, despite being burned out and at their breaking points. Until we enact policy to address the cause of that burnout, no number of new healthcare workers entering the field will solve the staffing crisis.

“COVID didn’t help, but it didn’t cause this crisis,” said Theresa Bowden, respiratory therapist at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane and a member of UFCW 3000. “Hospitals have been short staffed for years, and now we’re at a breaking point. Addressing burnout by ensuring we consistently have enough caregivers on hand to do our jobs safely and care for all our patients is the only way to truly address the problem. Asking us to somehow keep doing more with less is just asking for disaster.”

“New nurses are leaving hospital care because trying to take care of patients in the staffing crisis we’re facing is downright frightening and unsafe,” said Jacob Garcia, a nurse at Astria Sunnyside Hospital and a member of the Washington State Nurses Association. “The only way to retain experienced nurses and new nurses is to improve working conditions by setting safe staffing standards across the state.”

Mountains of evidence support healthcare workers’ call for safe staffing standards, including a report published last year by Patricia Pittman, Ph.D., FAAN, a leading national nursing researcher at George Washington University’s Fitzhugh Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity, looking at 30 years of research on nurse staffing levels, including in California, where safe staffing standards like those proposed in Washington already exist. Additionally, a recent study published in Nursing Outlook by national nursing policy researcher Linda Aiken concluded that safe staffing standards set by the state are the only policy successful at improving working conditions.

“All available research and data point to the fact that safe staffing standards set by state policy are the only way to improve working conditions, reduce burnout, ensure safety for workers and patients, and ultimately address the staffing crisis,” said David Keepnews, a registered nurse and executive director of WSNA. “Any other approach, including the hospital-based staffing committees we have here in Washington, has not been successful.”

Current staffing committees have not been able to effectively address the staffing crisis largely because the same hospital executives who have helped to create the crisis by years of profit-driven decisions to short-staff are able to disregard committee recommendations.

“For years healthcare workers have warned hospital executives about the impending staffing crisis, as highly paid executives continued to make decisions that led to higher and higher workloads for frontline staff,” said Faye Guenther, president of UFCW 3000. “Over and over workers were ignored, and these same hospital executives showed up in Olympia last session to fight tooth-and-nail against the solutions healthcare workers were calling for. They’ve chosen to further prolong a crisis in order to protect their ability to trim staff and maximize their bottom lines. We can’t put solving this crisis in the same hands that helped cause it – we need state legislators to step in.”

Last year hospital executives claimed that they wouldn’t be able to afford ensuring safe staffing standards to protect healthcare workers and patients, despite finding $120 million in total compensation for themselves, including $20.6 million in 2020 pandemic bonuses alone.

More policy details on an updated 2023 bill draft will be shared when the draft is available.