Union, lawmakers seek legislation that would set staffing requirements for health care

By: - September 14, 2023 5:20 am

Connie Smith, Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, speaks Wednesday morning at a Capitol press conference. (Wisconsin Examiner photo)

Barb Pomasl says she retired as a nurse two years ago after seeing the northern Wisconsin hospital where she worked taken over in a corporate merger.

“I have watched our health care system be torn apart by corporate health care,” Pomasl said at a Capitol news conference Wednesday. “My nursing career focused on caring for patients. I left because my employer and the health care industry made it impossible for me to meet the standards I set myself for caring for my patients. We need a more humane and compassionate health care system.”

One step in that direction, Pomasl said, would be a draft bill that Democratic lawmakers began circulating Wednesday, setting required staffing levels for hospitals and other health care providers. Health care employers would be required to submit staffing plans to the Department of Health Services (DHS) under the legislation.

The draft enumerates required limits on the number of patients per nurse providing direct care to those patients for 17 different kinds of hospital settings. Examples range from two patients per nurse in an intensive care unit or trauma unit to four patients in a labor obstetrics unit or six patients per nurse in a psychiatry unit. 

“Safe staffing ratios are good for patients,” said Connie Smith, president of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals union (WFNHP) and a surgical nurse at St. Francis Hospital in Milwaukee. Smith said the legislation would give nurses and other health care workers “the tools we need to provide the kind of care our patients have needed and what we’ve always wanted to provide them.”

She cited research studies that linked increased workloads for nurses to greater risks of patient deaths, and a reduction in deaths when the number of nurses caring for patients increased. 

When it comes to understanding what is best for patient care and safety, “we know better than any CEO, CFO or health care administrator,” Smith said. “We care for our patients every day, they don’t.”

In addition to setting staffing levels and requiring hospitals to file those plans with DHS, the bill would require hospitals to publicly post their staffing plans and to establish staffing committees with a majority of non-supervisory employees. 

The legislation also would enshrine a series of labor rights for health care workers, allowing them to refuse work assignments that they believe would compromise patient safety, limiting shifts to no more than 12 hours in a 24-hour period, forbidding most mandatory overtime and forbidding hospitals from retaliating against employees who exercise the rights that the proposed bill grants. 

Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), one of four Democratic lawmakers who have signed on to the proposed legislation, said that while hospitals in Wisconsin are mostly structured as nonprofit organizations, they “operate exactly like for-profit enterprises,” including forming large, multi-state chains.

“They have billions in assets to prove that point,” Larson said. “The least they can do is safely staff their hospitals and treat their workers like the professionals that they are.”

Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison), another lead author of the bill, equated a better working environment for nurses with better outcomes for patients.

“Workforce protections for our nurses, we know, will not only improve their quality of life, but they will also have a direct impact on patient care, health care outcomes and the overall functioning of our health care system,” Hong said. 

While there are federal proposals to institute staffing requirements, “there’s nothing on the books currently that solves the problem,” said Jamie Lucas, executive director for the WFNHP. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here today.”


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.