Healthcare unions: WA hospitals must mitigate staffing crisis

Short-sighted and costly stopgap measures are only a Band-Aid; hospitals have the tools and resources to alleviate burnout nightmare


The following is from the Washington State Nurses Associ­a­tion (WSNA), SEIU Health­care 1199NW and UFCW 21, who collec­tively repre­sent 71,000 nurses and other health­care workers in Washington state:

(Oct. 20, 2021) — 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.”

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.”

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. For years, health care workers and their unions have warned our 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. 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.”


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.

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