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The Impact – Nurses and Hospitals Reach Compromise With New Staffing Law

Mike McClanahan profile by Mike McClanahan

A new law will raise the stakes for hospitals to comply with staffing plans that set work schedules for nurses and limit the number of patients per nurse. This week we interviewed  representatives of the state’s nursing workforce and the hospital industry about what the new law would mean for patients, nurses and health care delivery in Washington.

“My hope is that the nurse and healthcare worker that comes and takes care of me is well rested and has the opportunity to really think Through the decisions that they are making and I believe that will lead to better outcomes all around.”

Katharine Weiss, Government Affairs Director for the Washington State Nurses Association

“We do have a workforce shortage, so anytime you’re introducing legislation or requirements that have more cost to them, in terms of compliance, in terms of the number of staff needed, that is going to increase cost.”

Chelene Whiteaker, Senior Vp of Government Affairs for the Washington State Hospital Association


Nurses and hospitals have been at odds for years over staffing levels and working conditions. 

Hospitals report increased difficulties finding enough nurses to work full-time and rising financial pressures from various factors in recent years. Washington’s hospitals rely on traveling nurses to fill staffing gaps. Travelers can reportedly cost twice as much as a typical full time staff nurse salary. Unions representing nurses have been fighting for more control over work schedules and the number of patients assigned to each nurse. They argue that the quality of care suffers as the number of patients per nurse goes up.

Previous legislative efforts to address these problems have not settled the issue, but a   compromise bill between nurses and hospitals that was just signed into law aims to change that.

Senate Bill 5236, sponsored by Sen. June Robinson (D-Everett), will give the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries and the Washington State Health Department formal oversight of hospital staffing committees.

The bill requires them to monitor and enforce hospital compliance with staffing plans.

It will require hospitals to develop nursing staff committees in which half of the members are nurses and half are members of the hospital administration.

The bill strengthens rest break policies for nurses and their prerogative to refuse to work overtime with limited exceptions. It also requires hospitals to notify the agencies when they fall short of 80% of the agreed staffing levels. 

 During testimony on SB 5236 nurses, labor organizations, business groups, citizens, and first responders drew different conclusions about how the staffing law would affect health care delivery. 

“To say our job is primarily life and death is not an exaggeration but a constant factor for us throughout our shifts. We are often short staffed and running from one crisis to another. We never get to say no or we don’t have enough staff to respond and we’re forced to triage resulting in delayed patient care,” said Michaela Roberts, UFCW.

House Labor & Workplace Standards Committee meeting, March 15.

“We’re opposed because we believe this will exacerbate the issues pre hospital providers have been experiencing statewide. When healthcare providers experience an influx of patients ,and they don’t have the staff to care for them, they do what’s called wall time, and the EMS staff stay with the patient until the emergency department can assume that care for that patient. And that, oftentimes, can can be multiple hours,” said Kim Williams, Camano Island Fire and Rescue.

Senate Ways & Means Committee meeting, Feb. 16. 

Watch the full interviews with Katharine Weiss of the WSNA and Chelene Whiteaker of the WSHA here: