Amid pandemic exhaustion, Washington state healthcare workers join growing call for longer-term staff support

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Treating COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit over the past 19 months often reminds Paul Fuller, a registered nurse in Wenatchee, of his time in the US military.

Fuller began her nursing career as an Army Paramedic and spent 14 months deployed to Iraq, he said Thursday evening during a panel with other nurses hosted online by the State Department of Health.

“It looks like a deployment. A really long and miserable deployment, ”said Fuller, who works at Central Washington Hospital. “It has been one of the most difficult years I have ever had.”

During the panel, Fuller and other nurses expressed concern over the growing discouragement among healthcare workers who have been strained throughout the pandemic – acknowledging that the last few months of battling the infectious variant delta, combined with an increase in misinformation about the virus and patients’ rejection of vaccinations, have worsened stress.

Julia Barcott, an intensive care nurse at Astria Toppenish Hospital in Yakima County, said that before the pandemic, she normally spent time with friends or volunteered in her community after work. Nowadays, she often goes straight home when her shift is over.

“As a coping mechanism, I don’t want to be with anyone,” she said. “I am emotionally exhausted. “

It’s not just the weight of the pandemic, she added, instead highlighting hospitals’ lack of long-term support for staff.

“Hospitals agree that (staff shortages) are a problem, but only they have the tools to take care of us,” Barcott said.

Barcott is one of many healthcare workers – including nurses, pharmacists, technicians, therapists and aides – in Washington who join a growing call for hospitals to provide financial and lasting support to their staff. as they work through the continuing pressure of the pandemic on the state’s medical systems. Other types of frontline workers, like grocery store workers, received a risk premium for their efforts during the pandemic, but healthcare workers were largely excluded from this group.

“You hear (hospitals) calling us heroes,” said Katy Brehe, registered nurse and ECMO specialist at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. “But we are human like everyone else and we want safe working conditions for us.”

Last week, three of Washington’s largest unions of nurses and other health workers released a joint statement in an attempt to shed light on several potential policies they would like hospitals to implement, including the end of mandatory overtime policies, the offer of retention bonuses for workers. who stayed on the job, offering incentive pay to those who take extra shifts and giving “appropriate” orientation to workers who are temporarily transferred to departments in which they do not normally work.

Staff shortages existed in Washington hospitals “long before the pandemic,” according to members of the Washington State Nurses Association, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare 1199 Northwest, and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) 21.

“If hospitals had taken steps to ensure adequate staffing years ago, we would not be facing such an extreme shortage now,” the statement said. “… COVID has exacerbated this already strained infrastructure, and the response of hospitals to the pandemic – including the gradual filling of open positions, the use of mandatory overtime, and the spending of resources on signing bonuses and positions. displacement rather than the retention of existing staff – only exacerbated this pre-existing shortage and led to massive burnout among workers.

In a statement released Friday, the Washington State Hospital Association said that “a number of hospitals” have implemented strategies that the WSNA, SEIU and UFCW are lobbying for, although it refused to say which organizations had done so.

“We are very focused on staff retention and are using many of the interim measures outlined in union comments to retain staff, including taking advantage of all avenues available to recruit more staff to ease the burden on staff. existing, “the statement said. noted. “Right now there are simply not enough people to meet the staffing needs and in a national market we are all competing for the same limited resource. “

At Harborview, the issue of retention pay has been a topic of conversation during ongoing hospital contract negotiations, according to a hospital statement in response to the workers’ call to action.

“Our proposal provides a very comprehensive compensation package with general increases as well as retention bonuses for our most difficult to fill positions,” the statement said. “We will continue to negotiate in good faith to reach a fair deal. “

Workers, however, say little progress has been made.

Brehe said she had worked at Harborview for 14 years and had been there for so long because of her commitment to the patient and staff community. But she understands why so many of her colleagues have left.

“We are an investment,” she said. “The conditions are tough, but… this is my community and I prefer to stay and do what I can. But we really need to reassess this issue more than ever, so that in the future hospitals start making these investments. “


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