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Hospitals on brink of unprecedented crisis

Preexisting staff shortages have reached critical levels; nurses, healthcare workers and patients need immediate action from hospitals in Washington state


The following is from the Washington State Nurses Associ­a­tion, SEIU Health­care 1199NW and UFCW 21:

(Sept. 14, 2021) — The reality cannot be overstated: Washington hospi­tals are on the brink of a crisis, and without immediate and impactful action to retain and attract critical workers the state’s healthcare system could face an unprece­dented collapse in capacity and care.

Hospi­tals across the state have warned of massive staffing short­falls and collapses in capacity. Now the Washington State Nurses Associ­a­tion, SEIU Health­care 1199NW and UFCW 21 — who collec­tively repre­sent 71,000 nurses and other health­care workers — are urging hospi­tals to use the tools they have avail­able to mitigate this crisis by retaining and adequately compen­sating current staff and filling under-staffed depart­ments to ensure patient safety and access to care.

“Amid a fifth wave of COVID, spurred on by the Delta variant, and hospi­tals overflowing with patients who need critical care, our state healthcare workers continue to heroically perform their jobs a year-and-a-half into this pandemic,” said Julia Barcott, chair of the WSNA Cabinet and an ICU nurse at Astria Toppenish Hospital. ​“But nurses and other front­line workers are people, too. We’re losing overworked nurses to overwhelming burnout, the distress of working short-staffed, better-paying traveler nurse jobs and even for signing bonuses of up to $20,000 to move to a different hospital. We’re worried for our patients and the impact of the staffing crisis on the care they receive.”

This isn’t just a crisis for front­line workers, it’s also a public health crisis. Because hospi­tals were already under­staffed well before the coron­avirus pandemic hit, we are now seeing a new story every day about a regional hospital at maximum capacity. Without immedi­ately addressing the shortage of staff and unten­able workloads for front­line workers, there could be dire conse­quences to Washington’s healthcare infrastructure.

“Chronic under­staffing is a disaster for patient care. Healthcare workers don’t want to see patients stuck in overflowing ICUs or being treated in ER hallways, or be forced to turn away ambulances at the door, but that’s the reality of health care right now,” said Faye Guenther, UFCW 21 presi­dent. ​“Hospi­tals need to immedi­ately respond to this patient care crisis. That means focusing on meaningful, sustain­able solutions that will recruit and retain quali­fied caregivers in every department.”

As many anti-vacci­na­tion activists falsely conflate the staffing crisis with looming vaccine deadlines for healthcare workers, it’s impor­tant to under­stand that healthcare staffing short­ages predate the coron­avirus pandemic. As a result of years’ of staffing and manage­ment decisions, many hospi­tals already didn’t meet adequate staffing for average patient levels. COVID exacer­bated this already strained infra­struc­ture, and hospi­tals’ response to the pandemic has only worsened this preex­isting crisis.

“What’s really driving this crisis is that hospi­tals have spent the last two decades balancing their budgets on the backs of healthcare workers and patients,” said Jane Hopkins, RN, execu­tive vice presi­dent of SEIU Health­care 1199NW. ​“COVID has been a stress test on our healthcare system, and we are seeing the system fail that test due to management’s choice to under­staff. Reten­tion bonuses for front­line workers who have stayed on the job, adequate pay for extra hours worked, and aggres­sive hiring to staff at full capacity would go a long way right now.”


SEIU Health­care 1199NW is a union of nurses and health­care workers with over 30,000 caregivers throughout hospi­tals, clinics, mental health, skilled home health and hospice programs in Washington state and Montana. SEIU Health­care 1199NW’s mission is to advocate for quality care and good jobs for all.

WSNA is the leading voice and advocate for nurses in Washington state, providing repre­sen­ta­tion, educa­tion and resources that allow nurses to reach their full profes­sional poten­tial and focus on caring for patients. WSNA repre­sents more than 19,000 regis­tered nurses for collec­tive bargaining who provide care in hospi­tals, clinics, schools and commu­nity and public health settings across the state. 

UFCW 21 is working to build a powerful union that fights for economic, polit­ical and social justice in our workplaces and our commu­ni­ties. We repre­sent over 45,000 workers in retail, grocery stores, health care, and other indus­tries in Washington state.

CHECK OUT THE UNION DIFFERENCE in Washington: higher wages, affordable health and dental care, job and retirement security.

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