SALT LAKE CITY — A bill introduced in the Utah State Legislature would enhance the level of crime for assaults on health care workers.
"I’ve heard about instances of physical aggression. People attacking nurses. Attacking security workers, attacking custodians in hospitals," said Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, who is sponsoring House Bill 32.
HB 32 elevates any assault on employees or contractors at health care facilities to a minimum of a class A misdemeanor, punishable by fines or jail time. Rep. Spendlove said he is expanding existing law, which only covers assaults in an emergency room. Under his proposed legislation, it would cover an entire hospital or a physician's office.
"It’s a really tough time in health care. Our essential workers are being subjected to abuse, both mental and verbal and physical," he told FOX 13 in a recent interview.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an increase in verbal and physical assaults on health care workers, said Liz Close, the executive director of the Utah Nurses Association. Close said some of it is driven by emotion and frustration, but also misinformation about COVID-19.
"I've heard instances where people have been angry because they think COVID is not real," she said in an interview with FOX 13. "They think nurses and doctors are lying to them."
The Utah Hospital Association said it was compiling a tally of assaults within health care facilities for lawmakers. Close said nationally, it's estimated that one in four nurses has experienced a workplace assault.
"Daily? We’re stabbed, punched, kicked, spit upon, much worse kinds of things go on," she said, adding that nurses are particularly vulnerable because they are most often at the bedside.
The Utah Nurses Association said it is supporting Rep. Spendlove's bill. Close said she would also like to see support on a congressional level to advance preventative measures to protect health care workers.
Right now, Rep. Spendlove said he is proposing that the enhanced penalty last for five years and after that, the legislature would review it to see if it is still necessary.
"The hope is once COVID becomes more endemic, then some of the stresses and people’s frustrations drop down and we re-assess the bill," he said.
Rep. Spendlove's bill is expected to be fast tracked in the 2022 legislative session. It received a unanimous vote of support in the legislature's interim Health & Human Services Committee.