Hospital administration and unions clash over draft staff law

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Members of SEIU 1199nw picket Providence St. Peter in Olympia on Thursday, January 27. Union members have been bargaining for safe staffing, better pay and racial equity for eight months.

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As the pandemic expands into the second year, hospitals and their staff members continue to be overwhelmed.

In fact, a December poll of healthcare workers in Washington showed that more than 80% of employees feel burnt out and 49% said they are likely to leave the healthcare industry in the next few years.

Washington state lawmakers are trying to ease some of that burden with several bills aimed at retaining and helping workers in hospitals, but the healthcare industry is divided on which legislation would be beneficial.

One bill that has caused disagreement is House Bill 1868, which would establish minimum staffing ratios for hospitals, as well as provisions for meals, breaks and overtime for healthcare workers. .

The bill also states that the Department of Labor and Industries would have jurisdiction over staffing committees and staffing plans to enforce the new standards. Currently, the Department of Health oversees these committees.

“It’s not enough to call people heroes and then ask them to provide quality patient care,” said the bill’s lead sponsor and House Majority Whip Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, during an interview. public testimony.

“It’s not their fault. Hospital leaders and administrators ignored staff recruitment and retention issues for years,” Riccelli said. “Healthcare workers have moved mountains over the past two years, but they are burning out.”

Several healthcare workers have testified in favor of the bill before the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee, but many hospital leaders and officials disagree with the bill’s intention. the legislation.

Beth Zborowski, senior vice president of member engagement and communications with the Washington State Hospital Association, told McClatchy in a phone interview Friday that she doesn’t think the bill will fix what’s causing strains in the health system.

She said part of the problem is that the proposed ratios for minimum standards of care are too rigid and the pandemic has caused a “significant shortage of staff”.

“Legislators think introducing these ratios would solve the problem because it would force people to hire, but they’re already trying to hire and there just aren’t the staff to fill those positions,” Zborowski said. “There’s no way anyone can meet those demands now.”

Also at issue, Zborowski said, are fines that would be levied by L&I if hospitals fail to meet minimum staff-to-patient ratios, or if there are violations of meal and break requirements and restrictions on hours. additional. Because the fines go to a state workers’ compensation fund, she thinks it takes financial resources away from hospitals at a time when hospitals need funds.

Jane Hopkins, executive vice president of SEIU 1199NW and a registered nurse, disagrees with Zborowski and told McClatchy in an interview Friday that the union fully supports the legislation. She said there has never been a time in her 20 years as a nurse when hospitals have not been understaffed, and says staffing has always been a ‘crisis’ .

Hopkins said hospital administrations have always found a way to “get around the law,” despite their claims of wanting to make it easier for health care providers.

“We need to make sure that every healthcare worker, every nurse and every CNA who comes into a hospital knows how many patients they have to care for, because people are tired of going home every day knowing they don’t. not providing the care they need. need their patients,” Hopkins said. “Hospitals put profits before patients.”

She said protecting healthcare workers would require a more holistic approach where multiple issues are addressed.

“Above all else, we need to have minimum staffing standards as the basis for all of these things,” Hopkins said. “Management will always find a way around that if we don’t make it concrete and clear, and this bill tries to do that.”

Hopkins said the SEIU was “thoughtful” about the drafting of the bill and that the hospitals were trying to scare people.

“It’s all about profit,” she said. “It’s about how much money they’re going to make so they can build the next building, so the CEO can get more, so the stakeholders can benefit.”

Although the hospital association does not support HB 1868 or its companion Senate bill, Zborowski said she supports other measures introduced by the legislature this year, including proposed bills to provide hazard pay. , bills to support the educational development of healthcare workers and bills. to address long-term health care placement for people who cannot make decisions for themselves.

SEIU 1199NW also agrees on these. Better wages and retention pay would be particularly important to keeping people in the industry, Hopkins said. She said while some hospitals offer retention bonuses, not enough hospitals in Washington do.

The companion bill for HB 1868, sponsored by Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, will have a public hearing Monday at the Senate Labor, Commerce, and Tribal Affairs Committee.

Shauna Sowersby was a freelancer for several local and national publications before joining McClatchy’s North West Newspapers covering the Legislative Assembly.

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