Opinion: Stacking the deck — union coalition tries to get lawmakers to mandate workplace conditions it wants

Elizabeth Hovde of the Washington Policy Center states that rigid standards will hinder the medical profession and professional judgment and workplace innovation should be allowed to continue, not get kicked down by SB 5236.

Elizabeth Hovde of the Washington Policy Center states that rigid standards will hinder the medical profession and professional judgment and workplace innovation should be allowed to continue, not get kicked down by SB 5236

Elizabeth Hovde
Washington Policy Center

How convenient. As the state considers a bill that would mandate staffing ratios in hospitals, a survey commissioned by the unions seeking that legislation was released. 

Elizabeth Hovde
Elizabeth Hovde

The survey says that of the union-member nurses asked, 49 percent said they are likely to leave health care work in the next few years. The suggestion made by the union coalition is that without the rigid staffing standards they demand, more nurses will leave their profession and faster. 

The nursing workforce is aging, one of the causes of a nationwide nursing shortage, it should be noted. Washington state is also one of the top-rated places to be a nurse, according to various sources.

The news generated by the unions is making its rounds, however, with its press-release-guided headline, and it appeared in testimony supporting the legislative staffing mandate embodied in Senate Bill 5236

I trust lawmakers will look into the survey’s roots and weigh possible intentions. SB 5236 is a micromanaging mandate that takes away professionals’ judgment and hospitals’ ability to best serve Washingtonians in need of their services. Some innovative ways to get various tasks off of nurses’ backs, enabling hospitals to better use nurses’ skills, could actually be limited by the legislation.

Make no mistake: Hospitals want good workplace conditions for nurses, too, but tying hospital hands helps no one. We have a nursing shortage in our state, and instead of closing departments and limiting hospital services because of an inability to meet a staffing standard mandated by the state, we need caregivers to use their professional judgment in, and medical facilities to find solutions for, the staffing challenges. Hospitals are not coffee shops that can close for the day due to short staffing. And right now, there isn’t a large enough supply of state-licensed nurses ready or able to take work being offered. 

In fact, the nursing shortage was made worse with COVID-19 mandates that served no demonstrable public health benefit. Gov. Jay Inslee and other leaders told the public to trust medical caregivers when it came to the vaccines, but it turns out they were only to be trusted if they endorsed vaccination. Their medical opinions were not trusted if they chose not to be vaccinated. Instead, they were terminated.

While the union coalition tries to build sympathy for burned-out nurses to get labor negotiations to go their way via the Legislature — never mind that society members already sympathize with nurses they greatly value — the nurses’ union is standing against two bills lawmakers are considering that would have our state joining 37 other states and two jurisdictions in the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC). 

The multistate licensing compact allows qualified, licensed nurses to move freely across state lines and get to work caregiving immediately, without spending time and money waiting for a Washington state nurse’s license. Read more about the value of joining the compact in my policy paper here

Raising outdated, invalid concerns about the safety involved in hiring qualified nurses from other states in times of need, the Washington State Nurses Association is fighting this worker rights’ issue. In the meantime, patients lose. 

COVID-19 taught us that we need caregivers that can descend on disease hotspots to help patients and caregivers who are overworked and burned out. Joining the NLC should have clear support from unions. It doesn’t. 

Lawmakers should key into this nugget from the unions’ survey as they consider the union-driven legislation and the bipartisan NLC legislation unions are trying to hold up: Among the 49 percent of workers who disclosed plans to exit the profession, 68 percent said short staffing was one of their primary reasons.

The state needs to grow more nurses. Efforts to create a bigger pipeline of nurses in our state and legislation allowing hospitals to access other states’ qualified nurses in times of need, as Senate Bill 5497 and House Bill 1417 would do, deserve lawmakers’ support. (Thankfully, right now, the NLC legislation is still moving forward.)

Washington Policy Center is cognizant of the trouble travel nursing is bringing nurse retention, hospital costs and nurse morale. Hospitals need more market solutions tackling that problem in the nursing world. But opposing the NLC is not the answer. Joining the compact is a patient-centered solution to increase patient safety. It is also a workers’ rights issue: Nurses should be able to move their careers freely about the country without unnecessary barriers.

Rigid standards will hinder the medical profession. Professional judgment and workplace innovation should be allowed to continue, not get kicked down by SB 5236.

Stay tuned.

Elizabeth Hovde is a policy analyst and the director of the Centers for Health Care and Worker Rights at the Washington Policy Center. She is a Clark County resident.

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