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Do nurses spend time ‘playing cards’? Washington senator’s remarks spark outrage

State Sen. Walsh says mandatory breaks for nurses can’t work everywhere

Nurses in Washington state are calling comments about nurses "playing cards" by Sen. Maureen Walsh disrespectful and patronizing after she argued that mandatory rest breaks at the tiniest hospitals would be too much of a burden.
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Nurses in Washington state are calling comments about nurses "playing cards" by Sen. Maureen Walsh disrespectful and patronizing after she argued that mandatory rest breaks at the tiniest hospitals would be too much of a burden.

Latest update: Walsh apologizes for saying nurses play cards on the job. This isn’t her first viral go-round

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State Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-College Place, has drawn the wrath of state nurses after she said on the floor of the Senate that some nurses may spend a considerable part of their day playing cards.

Her comments came during a debate on SHB 1155, which unions have supported. They have asked for years for legislation that would require uninterrupted meal and rest breaks and mandatory overtime protection no matter the size of the hospital.

The Washington State Nurses Association posted a blog about Walsh’s comments on its website, drawing so many readers that the site crashed for a time on Friday.

Walsh was arguing Tuesday for an amendment that would exclude small hospitals, like Dayton General Hospital, that have less than 25 beds. Some, like the Dayton hospital provide emergency care services around the clock.

The requirements for rest breaks would make it more difficult for small rural hospitals “that literally serve a handful of individuals” to stay open, she said.

“I would submit to you that those (small hospital) nurses probably do get breaks,” Walsh said. “They probably play cards for a considerable amount of the day.”

‘Disrespectful and patronizing’

The Washington State Nurses Association called the comment “incredibly disrespectful and patronizing.”

“There is zero logic behind an amendment to the rest breaks bill that would cover nurses and patients in some hospitals, while leaving others without any protections,” it said.

Recruiting nurses to rural facilities already is difficult and exempting them from laws requiring uninterrupted breaks and subjecting them to mandatory overtime would make recruiting more difficult, it said.

“No, senator, nurses are not sitting around playing cards,” it said. “They are taking care of your neighbors, your family, your community.”

Walsh did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The bill passed the state Senate with the amendment excluding small hospitals. It had previously passed the House without the amendment.

Walsh, who opposed the bill, also proposed an amendment that would prohibit licensed practical nurses or licensed registered nurses from working more than eight hours in a 24-hour period for a health care facility.

“Well, if we have an issue with nurses getting tired, let’s quit letting them do 12 hour shifts,” she said. Nurses want the longer shifts “but then they come back and start talking out both sides of their mouth and telling us how tired they are.”

The amendment to the Senate bill was approved by the Democrat-majority Senate.

Bill not final

The Washington State Nurses Association opposed both amendments and will be talking with lawmakers as the legislative process continues.

All workers, regardless of hospital size, should get a break, it said.

And the limit to eight-hour shifts would be unworkable for most hospitals and unfair to nurses, it said.

The different House and Senate versions of the bill will have to be reconciled before being signed into law.

The bill specifically requires that nurses and some other staff such as surgical technologists and diagnostic radiologic technologists, be provided uninterrupted meal and rest periods, except when there is an unforeseeable circumstance.

If a rest break is interrupted before 10 complete minutes, an additional 10 minute break is required.

It also would prohibit health care facilities from using what the nurses association considers a legal loophole to require overtime.

The association said it has tried to address the issues of skipped breaks and mandatory overtime with individual contract bargaining and litigation, but the problem remains pervasive.

Rest breaks are proven to address fatigue, which can lead to medical errors, it said.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.

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