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May 27, 2022

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Sen. Annette Cleveland bill seeks hazard pay for health care workers

Vancouver Democrat cites challenges of COVID-19 pandemic

By , Columbian staff writer

With hospitals and medical providers reporting continuing staff shortages, state Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, has proposed legislation to give hazard pay retention bonuses to some health care workers.

The bill had its first public hearing before the Senate Labor, Commerce and Tribal Affairs Committee on Thursday.

Cleveland said she brought the bill forward for two reasons: “First, to recognize and support our health care workers who’ve been putting themselves in harm’s way for nearly two years now caring for COVID patients. And second, to provide encouragement to health care workers to remain in their profession. While we know working in health care is challenging, in this time of COVID, it’s been particularly challenging.”

Senate Bill 5911 provides a one-time bonus to eligible health care workers in specified COVID-19 units. The bonuses would be paid using American Rescue Plan Act funds already given to the state. Workers will be eligible for the hazard pay bonus if they worked 240 hours in the 12 weeks immediately prior to June 26, 2022, and would be calculated based on the worker’s pay rate.

During the Senate hearing, Cleveland said those providing care to COVID-19 patients have made tremendous sacrifices, with some having to live away from their families to keep from spreading the virus. She said a recent report from the International Council of Nurses shows COVID-19 is causing mass trauma among nurses, with both immediate and long-lasting effects.

“Preliminary findings from this report suggest that COVID-19 is a unique and complex form of trauma with potentially devastating consequences,” she said.

Cleveland said she is hopeful this bill will help alleviate the shortage of health care workers reported by many hospitals and medical facilities, especially for nurses, medical assistants, phlebotomists, nursing assistants and respiratory care practitioners.

Vancouver nurse Terri Niles was among several nurses testifying at the Senate hearing. Niles said she began her 25-year career at the height of the AIDS epidemic and will most likely end her career with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID has been devastating to deal with as a nurse. The relentlessness of COVID-19 has been crushing for health care providers. The sheer number of sick patients is overwhelming,” Niles said.

Despite the risks and challenges in treating COVID patients, Niles said nurses continue to treat patients, but she warned they can’t continue without relief. Even though the bill wouldn’t address all of the problems heath care workers face, she said any support would help.

If passed, the Ways and Means Committee would determine how much American Rescue Plan Act funding would be allocated for the bonuses.

The bill will go back to the Senate committee for a vote to decide whether to send it to the Senate floor.

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