Healthcare workers unions are sounding the alarm on a potential crisis in Washington hospitals, and they say without immediate and impactful action to retain and attract critical workers the state’s health care 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 health care 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.
Barcott wrote that healthcare providers are losing overworked nurses to overwhelming burnout, the distress of working short-staffed, and to 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,” she said.
Union spokespeople from the WSNA, SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, and UFCW 21 collectively wrote about their concern of “dire consequences to Washington’s health care infrastructure” as already understaffed hospitals reach the maximum capacity amid the uptick in COVID hospitalizations.
“Chronic understaffing is a disaster for patient care. Health care 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.”
Healthcare union spokesperson say as many anti-vaccination activists falsely conflate the staffing crisis with looming vaccine deadlines for health care workers, it’s important to understand that health care 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, according to the union representatives. They claim 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 health care workers and patients,” said Jane Hopkins, RN, executive vice president of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW. “COVID has been a stress test on our health care system, and we are seeing the system fail that test due to management’s choice to understaff.”
Hopkins said 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 for healthcare worker morale and quality of care.