The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A state senator said nurses ‘probably play cards’ at work. Facing mass outrage, she’s apologized.

Washington state Sen. Maureen Walsh (R) apologized after a comment she made in an effort to prove a point on the state Senate floor on April 16 went viral. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

A Washington state senator apologized on Monday after drawing nationwide backlash for saying nurses in smaller hospitals “probably play cards for a considerable amount of the day” during their shifts.

State Sen. Maureen Walsh (R) made the comment last week while debating a bill that would give nurses uninterrupted meals and breaks at work and protect them from mandatory overtime. Walsh was arguing that hospitals in rural communities should be excluded from the measure because the requirements would place too much strain on those facilities.

“I was tired, and in the heat of argument on the Senate floor, I said some things about nurses that were taken out of context - but still they crossed the line,” Walsh said in a statement Monday. “I really don’t believe nurses at our critical access hospitals spend their days playing cards, but I did say it, and I wish I could reel it back.”

Her lengthy apology came after she was widely vilified following her appearance last Tuesday on the state Senate floor. The comment sparked an online petition calling for her to shadow a nurse and “experience what really happens” during a 12-hour shift. As of early Tuesday, the petition had garnered more than 650,000 signatures. The senator’s Olympia, Wash., office has also been flooded with angry phone calls and emails as well as packages containing decks of playing cards, the local NBC affiliate reported.

Walsh’s trouble began when the Senate convened last week to debate the bill and started with a discussion of an amendment that would exempt “critical access” hospitals, which usually have 25 beds or fewer in rural areas with small populations.

“I understand helping with employees and making sure that we have rest breaks and things like that, but I also understand that we need to care for patients first and foremost,” said Walsh, who noted that her district, which is located more than 200 miles southeast of Olympia, has a critical access hospital. “I’m in an underserved area and all we’re doing is making it more difficult to be served.”

She continued: “By putting these types of mandates on a critical access hospital that literally serves a handful of individuals, I would submit to you that those nurses probably do get breaks. They probably play cards for a considerable amount of the day."

If these hospitals are forced to comply with the bill, Walsh said she was told they “may not be able to survive.”

Later, Walsh also put forth what she described as a “statement amendment” prohibiting nurses from working shifts longer than eight hours in a 24-hour period, the Tri-City Herald reported.

“Well, if we have an issue with nurses getting tired, let’s quit letting them do 12-hour shifts,” she said.

Both amendments, which have been opposed by nurses, were approved and the bill passed in the Senate, the Herald reported. Walsh, who did not expect her amendment to make it in, voted against the bill, according to the Herald.

However, Walsh’s argument that nurses employed at smaller hospitals have time to indulge in card games stirred a national controversy.

The Washington State Nurses Association, a professional organization representing the state’s nurses, described Walsh’s comment as “perhaps one of the most demeaning statements on the nursing profession” since “The View’s” Joy Behar was excoriated in 2015 for suggesting only doctors use stethoscopes. Behar later apologized.

“No, Senator, nurses are not sitting around playing cards,” wrote Mathew Keller, WSNA’s director of nursing practice and health policy, in a blog post shared Thursday. “They are taking care of your neighbors, your family, your community."

The post cited studies published in peer-reviewed journals that found a range of problems when nurses are forced to unexpectedly work longer than 10 hours a day, including lowered quality of care and higher burnout rates.

"With all due respect, Sen. Walsh: perhaps it’s time for you to put down the cards and pick up the literature,” Keller wrote.

Walsh’s statement also caught the attention of Chicago nurse Juliana Bindas, who went on to launch the popular petition.

“I was really compelled to say something because there is definitely a lack of understanding of what nurses truly do,” the 27-year-old told The Washington Post on Monday. “We put our heart and soul into our careers, and those comments that she made were incredibly far-fetched from the reality of a nursing shift.”

It didn’t take long for criticisms of Walsh to proliferate across social media platforms. On Facebook, users spammed the senator’s page with hashtags such as #dontmesswithnurses and #yourcareeriscoding.

“To Senator Maureen Walsh: we will be caring for you one day, and we will treat you with much more respect and dignity than you’ve shown us,” one nurse wrote on Twitter, sharing a scathing letter. “You have kicked a beehive, madam.”

Others highlighted the grueling reality of a nurse’s job.

“Nursing itself has some of the highest turnover rates of any profession and it is largely due to burnout,” one person tweeted. “You don’t burnout when you play cards. You burnout from emotional and physical exhaustion beyond what she could possibly comprehend.”

In Monday’s statement, Walsh said she would be “happy to accept” the task of shadowing a nurse during a shift. Walsh noted that her mother was a nurse and personally experienced “the long hours she worked sacrificing to provide for her family.”

“Again, I was simply trying to differentiate between the staffing needs of the small rural critical access hospitals with a handful of patients, versus the large urban hospitals with hundreds and hundreds of patients,” she said. “I have the greatest respect for nurses, for their hard work, tremendous compassion, and the excellent care they gave me when I ended up in the hospital last year."

Walsh also said she supported removing her amendment limiting nurses to eight-hour shifts from the bill, saying that “the thousands of nurses who have contacted my office have told me loud and clear that there are many who prefer to work 12-hour shifts so they can spend more time with their families.” The Senate bill needs to be reconciled with a version passed in the House, which does not include the amendments, the Herald reported.

However, Walsh continued to justify her stance on why “small-town hospitals” should be exempt from the bill altogether, explaining that a number of critical access hospitals in the state “are already operating in the red,” and the legislation “will make them redder.”

“It will impose inflexible staffing requirements on hospitals that will dramatically increase their costs,” Walsh said of the bill, later adding, “It isn’t proper for the Legislature to micromanage the way hospitals manage their staffing.”

Bindas told The Post that Walsh’s apology was a “a relief” and welcomed the senator’s willingness to gain a better understanding of what nurses do on the job. But these latest developments are “just the beginning” in a long fight for nurses to get the safe working conditions they deserve, Bindas said.

“There’s so many issues that nurses have, but I feel like legislation hasn’t really taken a really hard look into it,” she said. “With a positive environment and a comforting environment, we can care better for people."

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