Nurses need breaks to stay fresh and clearheaded. Apparently so do Washington legislators

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.

Editor’s note: The House and Senate ironed out their differences and passed a bill Wednesday that’s responsive to the nurses’ demands for guaranteed rest periods and no mandatory overtime. The governor is expected to sign it.

What happens when your job has strict deadlines and a heavy workload, you’ve gone hours without a break and you’re functioning at less than peak performance?

If you’re Maureen Walsh, a state senator from Walla Walla, you end up making an embarrassing, off-the-cuff remark during a late-night floor speech. You say some nurses have so much free time, “they probably play cards for a considerable amount of the day.” You ignite a firestorm that detracts from an important health-care discussion.

Walsh’s defense? She made a gaffe while churning through piles of unfinished legislation alongside punchy colleagues in the last days of the 2019 session.

“I was tired,” Walsh told a reporter later. “I said something I wish I hadn’t.”

OK, then. Keeping a grueling schedule at the state Capitol is no small thing. It might even increase empathy for others who work hard in the public interest, right?

So imagine you’re a nurse working under exhausting conditions at a typical Washington hospital, carrying a full patient load and a long list of lifesaving tasks — but with little time to catch your breath.

The potential harm is a lot worse than a politician putting her foot in her mouth.

That’s why Washington nurses and their advocates are pushing hard again this year for a law ensuring they’re given uninterrupted rest and meal periods, similar to what Oregon and California already have.

It’s also why Walsh and her fellow Republicans are misguided in their efforts to kill the bill, or amend it to death.

House Bill 1155 would protect nurses — and by extension, their patients -— from conditions prevalent in understaffed hospital wards: pressure to delay or skip breaks, and to work mandatory overtime hours. It grants exceptions when an unforeseen emergency arises and nurses need to quickly return to duty.

The bill passed the House last month but has run into headwinds in the Senate.

We appreciate Walsh’s concerns for preserving small, rural hospitals in underserved communities. She fears additional staffing requirements might put them out of business, and she secured a Senate amendment exempting hospitals with fewer than 25 acute care beds from the bill.

But we’re not surprised her condescending claim about card-playing nurses in rural hospitals was poorly received. Mercifully, she stopped short of speculating about whether nurses prefer cribbage, pinochle or poker.

Walsh’s blooper quickly unleashed a national social-media backlash, spawning hashtags such as #respectnurses and #nursesdontplaycards.

“I love how health professionals come together when stuff like this happens,” one Oklahoma pharmacist tweeted. “It’s like we’re siblings who poke fun at each other, but when someone else messes with one of us, you’re gonna deal with the whole family!”

Not to mention nurses unions.

On Monday, Walsh continued her apology tour and accepted a challenge to shadow a nurse for 12 hours. That’s a great idea, but she might want to do it soon, because another amendment she won last week would block nurses from working more than eight hours in a 24-hour period. The amendment, which nobody likes (including Walsh), would do away with the 12-hour shift popular with many nurses.

Chances are fading that House and Senate negotiators will resolve key differences in HB1155 before the regular session ends this weekend. Maybe that’s just as well, since senators cluttered the bill with late amendments.

Nurses, meanwhile, plan to rally in Olympia Wednesday. They’ll also keep fighting the good fight for minimum-staffing standards through contract negotiations, like they’re doing now at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma. And they’ve made progress in the legal system; a state Supreme Court ruling last year granted class-action status in their pursuit of regular meal and rest breaks.

To have success with the legislative branch, however, can be a maddeningly long game. The deck sometimes seems stacked against change. Nurses know this well, despite not having time to play cards.