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'We’re losing overworked nurses': Washington nurses unions say staff shortages could lead to health care collapse

Without any immediate action to retain and attract health workers, the health system will face an unprecedented collapse in capacity and care, the union said.

WASHINGTON — Washington hospitals are facing a severe shortage of health care workers and a higher patient capacity amid the fifth wave of COVID-19 spurred on by the Delta variant.

Associations representing about 71,000 Washington nurses and healthcare worker, including the Washington State Nurses Association, SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, and UFCW 21 are asking hospitals to help reduce the shortage by offering an adequate salary to current staff, filling departments that are understaffed to help make sure patients have safe access to care. 

WSNA Cabinet Chair and ICU nurse at Astria Toppenish Hospital, Julia Barcott, said nurses became overwhelmed after they were the main responders when the coronavirus pandemic first started and after the rise of Delta variant with hospitals overflowing.

"But nurses and other frontline workers are people, too. We’re losing overworked nurses to overwhelming burnout, the distress of working short-staffed, better-paying traveler nurse jobs and even for signing bonuses of up to $20,000 to move to a different hospital," Barcott said. "We’re worried for our patients and the impact of the staffing crisis on the care they receive.”

WSNA said in a press release the shortage of health workers is a public health crisis that needs to be addressed immediately or the Washington heath care will suffer an unprecedented crisis.

UFCW 21 president Faye Guenther said the shortage of healthcare workers at hospitals affects both staff and patients, and hospitals need to immediately respond to the crisis by focusing on solutions that will recruit and retain qualified caregivers in every department.

This crisis is the result of years of poor staffing and management decisions, according to the union. Many hospitals already didn’t meet adequate staffing for average patient levels before the pandemic and it has only gotten worse, the report said.

SEIU Healthcare 1199NW Executive Vice President Jane Hopkins said, “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. 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 right now.”