Wisconsin passes law making threats against healthcare workers a felony

Dive Brief:

  • Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers signed a bill Wednesday that makes it a felony to threaten a healthcare worker in the state, similar to laws covering police officers and other government workers.
  • The state already has a law making it a felony to commit battery against nurses, emergency care providers or those working in an emergency department.
  • “With significant workforce challenges in Wisconsin hospitals, we cannot afford to lose providers because they fear threats in the workplace,” Eric Borgerding, president of the state’s hospital association, said in a release. “Today’s new law will send a strong message to the public that threats against health care workers are taken seriously and not tolerated in Wisconsin.”

Dive Insight:

Healthcare workers have long been accustomed to both verbal and physical attacks in the workplace, often coming from distraught patients or family members.

In fact, workers in the healthcare and social service industries experience the highest rates of injuries caused by workplace violence and are five times as likely to get injured at work than workers overall, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A recent survey from staffing firm Incredible Health found nurses believe attacks are on the rise, partially due to ongoing COVID-19 guidelines. Some 65% of nurses said they had been verbally or physically attacked by a patient or patient’s family member in the past year, the survey found.

While 52% attributed that uptick to pandemic restrictions, 47% said it’s a result of longer wait times and other issues caused by a lack of staffing.

Hospitals across the country are grappling with dire staffing shortages as burned out healthcare workers quit, retire or leave for higher-paying traveling nurse positions two years into the COVID-19 pandemic.

recent report from the Wisconsin Hospital Association found 13 out of the 17 positions it surveyed had higher hospital vacancy rates in 2021 than the year prior, and seven of those positions had vacancy rates exceeding 10%.

“Threats against healthcare workers cause hospital staff to choose between caring for patients in the hospital or leaving the hospital altogether,” Borgerding said.

There are no federal laws that directly address violence against healthcare workers, though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration offers guidance for employers, and a handful of states have rules for employers or laws penalizing offenders.

Last April, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, which would make healthcare employers develop and implement comprehensive workplace violence prevention plans, provide employees with annual training, keep detailed records of violent incidents and submit annual summaries to the federal labor department. The bill has yet to pass the Senate.

Labor unions representing healthcare workers, like National Nurses United, support that legislation and say a consistent and enforceable rule is necessary.

However, NNU opposes laws like Wisconsin’s that criminalize perpetrators of violence against healthcare workers, as those who do so are often vulnerable patients, the union said in an emailed statement.