Nurses rally at the Capitol in support of workplace overtime and meal break hours
Unionized nurses and hospital technicians flooded the halls of the Legislative Building on Wednesday and hours later the state Legislature approved a bill to require uninterrupted meal and rest breaks, as well as protections against mandatory overtime.
At a rally on the steps, about 300 workers cheered as union leaders said a House-Senate conference committee hashing out the final version of HB 1155 removed “dangerous amendments” on Tuesday.
By a 32-16 vote, the Senate approved the bill four hours after Wednesday’s rally. The House later followed suit with a 70-24 vote, capping a 10-year effort by unions representing health care workers to get the legislation passed. Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign the bill into law.
Those amendments removed include an eight-hour cap on shifts and an exemption for uninterrupted meal and rest breaks and worker overtime protections at “critical care hospitals,” usually rural hospitals with only a few dozen beds. The final version delays implementation of mandatory overtime protections for nurses and hospital technicians by two years at critical access hospitals and by six months at all other hospitals.
With the exception of two health care workers wearing “playing card” costumes, there were only a few references to Sen. Maureen Walsh. During an April 16 debate on the bill, the Walla Walla Republican said nurses at very small hospitals “probably play cards for a considerable amount of the day.” She opposed the bill, saying it would increase costs to hospitals and impose inflexible staffing requirements on them.
Walsh’s comments went viral on social media and infuriated nurses and others across the nation. Walsh apologized Monday to those offended by her comment. She voted against the final version of the bill on Wednesday.
Travis Elmore, an in-house lobbyist with the Washington State Nurses Association who worked for several years as a registered nurse, addressed workers at the rally before the Senate vote.
“As health care professionals, this is not about Senator Walsh or any of the other senators who voted against the bill, and it’s not about playing cards,” Elmore said. “The message again is respect and pass substitute House 1155 as it came out of conference committee.”
In addition to the WSNA, the rally was organized by SEIU Health Care 1199 NW and UFCW 21.
Melanie Arciaga, an acute care registered nurse at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, said missing a rest or meal break can lead to mental and physical fatigue, especially when a hospital is short-staffed.
“When fatigued, I am vulnerable to making medical errors, which are the third-leading cause (of death), right behind heart disease and cancer. This is a matter of life and death,” said Arciaga, a member of the executive board of SEIU Health Care 1199 NW. “Uninterrupted breaks ensure the safety of our patients and prevent accidental deaths by medical errors. So state lawmakers, do the right thing and pass a clean bill — now.”
Maggie Humphreys, the Washington state director of Moms Rising — an advocacy group for women, mothers and families — was among several speakers who expressed support for the bill.
“As a women’s rights organization, we know that nursing — like too many other women-dominated industries — have been long left behind in the fight for labor standards. That would not be a question if men were the majority of workers,” she said.
Responding to the Senate’s approval of HB 1155, Tim Pfarr, a spokesman for the Washington State Hospital Association, said in a statement: “We are pleased that the eight-hour shift limit for nurses was removed after our hospitals mobilized nurses, who sent more than 25,000 letters to lawmakers in opposition to that amendment, but we are disappointed that the Legislature fails to recognize the challenges of providing health care to rural communities.
“We remain committed to addressing nurse fatigue and we will continue to work toward solutions that protect access to care in all communities and address the constantly changing needs of patients,” Pfarr added.