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Healthcare staffing bill passes House, heads to governor’s desk

The following is from WA Safe + Healthy:

OLYMPIA (April 7, 2023) — The Washington State House of Representatives passed the healthcare staffing bill (ESSB 5236) Thursday, the final legislative hurdle in a long process led by healthcare workers, their unions, patient advocates and key legislative advocates like prime sponsor Sen. June Robinson (D-Everett) to begin addressing the ongoing hospital staffing crisis this legislative session. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk.

ESSB 5236 reflects a compromise between unions representing bedside healthcare workers and the state hospital association. While the original bill would have established statewide safe staffing standards – a policy proven by decades of research to improve outcomes for patients and workers – the final compromise will strengthen accountability to staffing plans and allow for corrective action by state agencies if necessary.

“While this bill isn’t everything we called for, this is a real and meaningful step towards better safety for Washington healthcare workers and patients,” said Faye Guenther, president of UFCW 3000. “For years we’ve fought for strong, enforceable staffing standards, while hospital executives have sought to preserve the status quo. This is progress.”

The final bill strengthens accountability to hospital staffing plans. If hospitals fall below 80 percent compliance with their staffing plans, they are required to report noncompliance to the Department of Health (DOH) and the Department of Labor & Industries (L&I). Noncompliant hospitals will be assigned a corrective action plan by L&I and DOH, which may include elements like safe staffing standards set by L&I that the hospital will have to follow.

The bill also expands meal and rest break laws to include all frontline staff, closes loopholes to make mandatory overtime laws fully enforceable, and ensures hospitals follow the law. If there are more than 20 percent of breaks missed in a month, L&I will issue escalating penalties.

“We’re in a staffing crisis because of massive burnout caused by years of unmanageable working conditions due to short-staffing,” said David Keepnews, executive director of the Washington State Nurses Association. “To begin to address the staffing crisis, we need to address the underlying burnout. Strengthening accountability to staffing plans, as well as expanding and enforcing existing overtime and breaks laws, are key to improving working conditions for our healthcare workers.”

In a February poll conducted among members of UFCW 3000, SEIU Healthcare 1199NW and the Washington State Nurses Association – who collectively represent more than 75,000 healthcare workers in Washington –  49 percent of healthcare workers said they were likely to leave the field within the next few years. Among those likely to leave, 68 percent said short-staffing was one of their primary reasons.

The statewide hospital staffing crisis isn’t just a crisis for workers, it’s also a patient safety crisis. In the same February poll, 48 percent of healthcare workers said in the last year their hospitals have experienced a patient safety event leading to harm or death which they believed was due to short-staffing.

Legislators have heard overwhelming support for safe staffing legislation this session. Tens of thousands of healthcare workers and patient advocates have signed up in support of ESSB 5236 during hearings and sent emails to their lawmakers. Additionally, January polling showed that an overwhelming 76 percent of Washington voters support safe staffing standards.

“This session made it abundantly clear that Washington voters – patients – understand that staffing standards are the solution our healthcare workers have called for, and they’ve shown their overwhelming support,” said Jane Hopkins, president of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW. “We’re glad legislators have listened, and while this bill establishes a different path to safe staffing than the one healthcare workers originally called for, it’s a step in the right direction after years of inaction by hospital executives.”

In addition to policy changes, the bill will also fund the WA State Institute for Public Policy to conduct a study of existing staffing plans to establish what’s actually happening in WA hospitals and compare them to elsewhere. This study would set a baseline understanding of the staffing crisis in WA by a credible, nonpartisan source, and provide a benchmark against California and professional association standards for staffing levels, which is critical for continued work to ensure safe staffing in Washington.

The WA Safe + Healthy campaign is a coalition of healthcare workers calling on Washington legislators to pass safe staffing standards for the health and safety of both workers and patients. Collectively, the Washington State Nurses Association, UFCW 3000 and SEIU Healthcare 1199NW represent more than 75,000 healthcare workers in the state of Washington. Learn more at

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