Facing pandemic burnout, Washington state health care workers join growing call for more long-term staff support

Treating COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit for the past 19 months often reminds Paul Fuller, a registered nurse in Wenatchee, of his time in the U.S. Army.

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

“This feels like a deployment. A really long, miserable deployment,” said Fuller, who works at Central Washington Hospital. “This has been one of the hardest years I’ve ever experienced.”

During the panel, Fuller and other nurses voiced concerns of deepening discouragement among health care workers who have been strained throughout the pandemic — acknowledging that recent months of combating the infectious delta variant, combined with seeing increased virus misinformation and patient pushback on vaccinations, have worsened the stress.

Julia Barcott, an ICU nurse at Astria Toppenish Hospital in Yakima County, said that before the pandemic, she would normally spend time with friends or volunteer in her community after work. Nowadays, she often goes straight home when her shift is up.

“As a coping mechanism, I don’t want to be around anyone,” she said. “I’m emotionally drained.”

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

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

Barcott is one of many health care workers — including nurses, pharmacists, technicians, therapists and aides — in Washington who are joining a growing call for hospitals to offer more financial and sustainable support to their staff as they work through the pandemic’s continued strain on the state’s medical systems. Other types of front-line workers, like grocery store employees, have received some hazard pay for their efforts during the pandemic, but health care employees have been largely excluded from that group.

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

Last week, three of Washington’s largest labor unions for nurses and other health care employees issued a joint statement in an attempt to shed light on several potential policies they’d like to see hospitals implement, including ending mandatory overtime policies, offering retention bonuses for workers who have stayed on the job, providing incentive pay for those who take on extra shifts and giving “appropriate” orientation for workers who are temporarily moved to departments they don’t normally work in.

Staffing 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.

“Had hospi­tals taken action to address adequate staffing years ago, we wouldn’t be facing such an extreme shortage now,” the statement said. “… COVID exacer­bated this already strained infra­struc­ture, and hospi­tals’ response to the pandemic — including slowly filling open positions, falling back on manda­tory overtime and spending resources on signing bonuses and traveling positions rather than existing staff reten­tion — has only worsened this preex­isting shortage and led to massive burnout among workers.”

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

“We are very focused on retention of staff and are using many of the stop gap measures outlined in the comments from the unions to retain staff — including leveraging all available avenues to bring in more staff to alleviate the burden on existing staff,” the statement said. “Right now there just are not enough people to fill 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 across-the board increases as well as retention bonuses for our most hard-to-fill positions,” the statement said. “We will continue to bargain in good faith to reach a fair agreement.”

Workers, however, say not much progress has been made.

Brehe said she’s worked at Harborview for 14 years, and stayed so long because of her commitment to the patient and staff community. But she understands why so many of her co-workers have left.

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