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Nurses union hopeful for ban on mandatory overtime

The Business Journal of Milwaukee, February 27, 2009, by Corrinne Hess

Wisconsin nurses are trying for a fifth time to get state legislation passed that would ban the long-standing practice of mandatory overtime.

The legislation would limit mandatory overtime in hospitals only in cases of unforeseen emergencies such as debilitating snowstorms, epidemics or terrorist attacks.

Hospitals regularly use mandatory overtime to fill shifts and nurses are forced, often without notice, to work for sometimes up to 16 hours in a row, said Stephanie Bloomingdale, director of public policy for the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals.

Mandatory overtime is not only unsafe for patients, but it is driving nurses out of the profession, which worsens the nursing shortage, Bloomingdale said.

The bill has passed four times in the Wisconsin Senate, but has not been able to get out of committee in the Assembly.

The state Federation of Nurses, which represents 3,000 nurses and health care workers, is confident this will be the year the law passes now that Democrats control the governor's office and Legislature.

State Sen. Judy Robson (D-Beloit) is circulating the bill for sponsorship and will formally introduce the legislation the first week in March, said Nadine Gratz, spokesperson for Robson. Rep. Sandra Pasch (D-Milwaukee) is a co-sponsor of the bill.

A 2008 survey by the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals found 42 percent of nurses are forced to work overtime at least once a month and 12 percent have had to do so at least once a week.

That same survey of 1,500 Milwaukee-area nurses found 82 percent of nurses believe mandatory overtime is a contributor to nurse turnover, while 73 percent believe a ban would significantly improve the ability to recruit new nurses.

The Wisconsin Hospital Association (WHA) is opposed to the bill, saying it will restrict hospitals' ability to care for patients in difficult circumstances or unexpected staff absences.

"WHA does not believe mandatory overtime is appropriate, or a frequently used staffing strategy; however, in order to protect patients must remain an option," Judy Warmuth, vice president of WHA work force development, said in a statement.

Warmuth said the issue of fatigue should be discussed with the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), nurse leaders, insurers and others to educate employers and develop strategies for safer workplaces, not through legislation.

"This legislation falls short of the comprehensive solutions necessary to achieve these goals and that involve all stakeholders at the table," Warmuth said.

Since 2000, 15 states, including Illinois and Minnesota, have banned mandatory overtime for nurses or have passed laws restricting its use in health care facilities.