Photo depicting a group of health care workers, some in blue scrubs, others in more colorful patterned ones, all wearing hair nets and surgical face masks gathered around.

Too Many Patients, Too Few Staff Members Create Unsafe Conditions, Unions Announce

by Sally James


Nurses and other hospital-based workers joined union officials Dec. 13 to launch a lobbying effort aimed at creating minimum standards for staff numbers in hospitals.

In an emotional press conference by livestream, several workers shared their own experiences with covering gaps left by short staffing. There were staff shortages before the pandemic began, but the crucible of the outbreak made it worse. The project is called the Washington Safe and Healthy Campaign

“We are facing staff issues unlike anything I’ve seen in decades,” said Julia Barcott, a registered nurse who works in the intensive care unit at a hospital in Toppenish, Washington. Nurses are tired of coping with the pandemic and tired of promises from hospital leaders that there will be remedies, she said. 

Ademola Adeyemo, a nurse assistant at UW Medical Center — Northwest, said, “We need safety standards now … to protect people like me from unsafe staff load.” Northwest Hospital is part of the University of Washington medical system. A spokeswoman from UW Medicine declined to comment to the Emerald on the issues raised in the press conference.

“Calling us heroes is not enough. It was never enough,” Adeyemo said.  

Beth Zborowski, a spokesperson for the Washington Hospital Association, said the group agrees that staffing is a huge problem but does not endorse rigid regulations for staff levels that exist in California. In a phone interview, Zborowski said that regulating the number of registered nurses per bed, for example, can be a less flexible way to solve a problem. She did not explain what could take the place of such a requirement.

The hospital association polled nearly 80 member hospitals recently and found that it would have to hire 6,100 more nurses to fill the vacancies that already exist in the state, Zborowski said. Shortages exist nationwide. 

Competition for nurses is so fierce that some are quitting their staff jobs at hospitals to become what are called “traveling nurses” who work on short-term contracts. 

“I’ve seen nurses leave my ICU to become travelers and make as much in a week as we do in a month,” Barcott said. One recent story in Newsweek said travelers can make $5,000 for one week’s work. 

The campaign is a collaboration between three health care unions: SEIU 1199, Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA), and the United Food and Commercial Workers 21 (UFCW 21). At their campaign website, the unions released results of a poll of workers that showed almost half are considering quitting their jobs within a few years. The three unions represent about 70,000 health care personnel, including nurses, in the state.

In a written statement, the three unions explain that they plan to write a draft bill to submit to the Washington State Legislature before the session begins on Jan. 10. They did not give any details about what the staffing standards might be or what agency would enforce them. The state of California is the only state with such standards. California’s rules mandate one registered nurse for every two patients in intensive care units.

Derek Roybal works in a cardiac catheterization lab inside Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane. 

“I think of it as a rope beginning to fray,” he said about the shortages. “When one staff person leaves, the burden falls to the next remaining staff member. It trickles down all the way and might have an impact on patient safety.”

Overall, Washington State has fewer hospital beds than many other states around the country. Oregon and Washington rank 22nd among U.S. states in the number of beds per 100,000 people, according to a 2020 review.  While the unions did not provide a draft of their proposals, they asked for staff standards, enforcement of existing overtime, and rest breaks that they said were not being followed, as well as workforce development to train and attract more to the ranks.

South Seattle only has two hospitals: Harborview and the Veterans Health Administration hospital. Other parts of the city have more resources for health care.

Kathrina Westby-Sharman, vice president of patient experience and operations at HealthPoint Community Health Clinics, and her colleague Pam Sullivan, vice president of talent management, said their clinics are also fighting staff burnout.

“The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic … on top of providing ongoing care is fatiguing for community health workers,” they  wrote. “This is complicated by all health care organizations competing for a limited pool of qualified candidates.”


Sally James is a science writer in Seattle. You can read more of her work at SeattleScienceWriter.com. She’s written about biotech, cancer research, and health literacy and volunteered as president of the nonprofit Northwest Science Writers Association.

📸 Featured image attributed to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade‪’s Flickr (under a Creative Commons, CC BY 2.0 license).

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