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Mandatory nurse overtime, too many patients the targets of proposed Washington bills

The bills limit the number of patients assigned to a nurse and ban mandatory overtime in hospitals.

SEATTLE — Hospitals are in a staffing crisis.

Unions say health care workers have been leaving the industry since before the pandemic, and COVID-19 has only made the problem worse.

Unions hope two new bills introduced in Olympia will address this problem. 

A 2021 poll put together by the Washington State Nurses Association, SEIU Healthcare 1199NW and UFCW 21 showed 84% of health care workers feel "very" or "somewhat" burned out. The poll showed 49% of health care workers said they're likely to leave the profession in the next few years.

Unions are now looking to lawmakers to help keep people in the health care industry. Last week, House Bill 1868 and Senate Bill 5751 were both introduced. 

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The bills have bipartisan support and could legally change the way hospitals treat their staff. The bills limit how many patients a nurse can be assigned and aim to address staffing standards at hospitals.

According to the legislation, the number of patients a nurse could be assigned depends on their department. For example, Intensive Care Unit nurses could be assigned no more than two patients, and Emergency Department nurses could be assigned up to three non-trauma or noncritical patients or just one trauma or critical patient.

The bills also ban required overtime, changing the legislation to say "overtime is strictly voluntary." Hospitals would also be required to create a staffing committee that would develop and oversee an annual patient care unit and shift-based staffing plan.

"By having this law in place, it's actually going to make things better because people that are coming in that we're going to recruit, we'll be able to retain them because the work is manageable. Those that are thinking about leaving will actually stay," said Jane Hopkins, a registered nurse and the executive vice president of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW.

The Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA) said it's still working to understand the legislation, but the organization highlighted concerns during a briefing Thursday. 

"This bill would impose more limits and constraints on our ability to stretch staff so that they can serve patients in these really challenging circumstances, instead of providing more flexibility," said WSHA Executive Vice President Taya Briley.

House Bill 1868 will have its first public hearing Wednesday at the House Committee on Labor and Workplace Standards starting at 10 a.m.

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