Bills would improve nursing home staffing in Washington

As a longtime aide at a nursing home in Bellingham, I love what I do and I care deeply about the residents under my watch. What I don’t love is the fact that nursing homes like mine are woefully understaffed, leaving caregivers like me tired, burned out and unable to dedicate enough time and attention to caring for our residents — your parents, grandparents and loved ones.

I’ve seen it all: Residents falling and hitting themselves on the head, residents who go for weeks without a shower because there’s no one available to give them one, even a resident who got outside and fell on the sidewalk, suffering a traumatic brain injury. If our building had been fully staffed, he wouldn’t have died that way.

Many of us stay on despite the hardships. Many others flee the field and don’t look back. According to a national scorecard by AARP, turnover for certified nursing assistants in nursing homes in Washington State is 52 percent, putting Washington near the bottom of the nation in turnover among nursing aides.

Shockingly, despite Washington’s reputation as a progressive leader, we are one of the few states in the country with no minimum staffing levels for our nursing homes. There is, however, reason to hope that Washington’s dismal record can be reversed. Rep. Steve Tharinger’s House Bill 1784, which would establish minimum staffing ratios and make other sensible changes to state rules governing nursing homes, would make it easier for nursing-home workers to do our jobs while improving living conditions and quality of life for nursing-home residents. A second bill, Senate Bill 6010, to set minimum staffing levels in nursing homes has bipartisan support from Democratic Rep. Eileen Cody and Republican Senator Linda Parlette. Not surprisingly, lower resident-to-staff ratios are directly linked to lower resident mortality rates, lower hospitalization rates and improved mental and physical condition.

My story is, unfortunately, far from unique. Again and again, my colleagues across the state relate tales that would sound like nightmares if they weren’t all too real.

A night shift worker at a nursing home in Snohomish speaks for many when she says she feels guilty she can’t do more. “I just wish I could spend more time doing the little things that count — putting lotion on their skin, making sure they’re shaved, making sure that their clothes match,” she says. “I know that I take a shower every day. If I had to go a week or 10 days without getting a shower, I would not be happy.”

House Bill 1784 would help improve our working conditions while improving the lives of some of Washington’s most vulnerable residents by making three critical changes to state law governing conditions at Washington State nursing homes.

First, it would set mandatory minimum staffing levels for all nursing homes: Seven residents per nursing assistant during the day, nine during evening hours and 16 per aide overnight.

Second, it would ensure sure that a registered nurse is on staff at all nursing homes, 24 hours a day. Currently, Washington requires only that one RN be on site for 16 hours a day, leaving facilities without any licensed medical staff for up to eight hours daily.

Finally, it would promote quality care by basing the rates paid to nursing homes on how well they meet quality standards, including resident and family satisfaction, worker injuries and turnover rates and resident health.

We are the people who are there every day, making sure that your parents and grandparents are taken care of. We stay in this job because we want to make a difference in people’s lives. But we need adequate staffing to help ensure that your loved ones are healthy, safe and happy in our facilities. That’s a goal we share with families and residents and one that minimum staffing levels would do much to accomplish.