On October 27 nurses from NYSNA, National Nurses United (NNU), the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH), 1199SEIU, and Health Professional and Allied Employees (HPAE) gathered in New Jersey for a congressional field hearing held by Sen. Bernie Sanders on the critical issue of understaffing in the nursing industry.
Nancy Hagans, RN, BSN, CCRN, president of the New York State Nurses Association and National Nurses United, and President Judy Danella, RN, of USW Local 4-200, the union that represents RWJUH nurses, provided powerful testimony on the safe staffing crisis and the need for federal safe staffing ratios.
“I’ve been in situations where I know that if I had fewer patients, I might have been able to save a patient’s life,” Hagans said at the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Senate Committee field hearing on Friday. “It is the worst feeling you can imagine. Those experiences lead to moral distress. Hospitals will claim there is a nursing shortage; there aren’t enough nurses to hire to provide safe staffing levels. That’s a lie.”
She explained that there is not a nursing shortage—it’s a staffing crisis leading to nurses leaving the profession.
USW 4-200 Pres. Judy Danella, RN, said: “Let’s be real clear: this issue of chronic understaffing is not the result of larger labor market forces but it is a purposeful business decision by the hospitals.”
“We have never had a larger meeting than this”
The hearing at the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers University was held about 2 miles from the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, where thousands of nurses have been on strike for over 80 days due to safe staffing and safe patient care issues.
Hundreds of nurses, healthcare workers and advocates packed the auditorium. Sen. Sanders pointed out that in his 18 years as chair of the HELP committee, he had never seen a larger hearing than the one on Friday.
It was a historic moment—it was the first senate hearing on safe staffing ratios and the first time a NYSNA president testified at a congressional hearing. Hagans called on Congress to pass federal legislation supporting mandatory minimum registered nurse-to-patient ratios and expressed support for the striking RWJUH nurses.
“But we should not have to strike to win common sense solutions to protect our patients and communities,” Hagans said. “It is the responsibility of our government to enact policies that will protect us.”
HELP Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders also heard testimony from Carol Tanzi, RN, BSN, a pediatric recovery room nurse at RWJUH, Patricia Pittman, PhD, professor and director of the Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity,and Debbie White, RN, president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees. They spoke about the importance of safe staffing to nurses and patients everywhere.
Sen. Sanders pointed to the fact that the U.S. has some of the highest per capita spending on healthcare yet has some of the worst health outcomes. He praised the nurses for the frontline work they take on every day and called out the working conditions causing nurses to leave the bedside.
“There are over 1 million Americans who are licensed to be nurses but are no longer doing the jobs that they want to do and that they love because the working conditions in hospitals are often deplorable,” Sanders said.“How sad it is—how tragic it is that these nurses who want to do their jobs, compelled to do their jobs, no longer feel comfortable in doing that work.”
Hospital executives Mark Manigan, the president and CEO at RWJBarnabas Health, the company that owns RWJUH, and Alan Lee, president of RWJUH, were invited to testify at the hearing but refused to attend.
Since the strike at RWJUH began in August, the company overseeing the hospital has spent $100 million on replacement nurses.
After the hearing, elected officials and NewJersey labor and community leaders joined the large rally of nurses and healthcare workers to voice support for the striking RWJUH nurses and to highlight the importance of safe staffing.
Danella thanked supporters and rallied the crowd, reminding them of the power nurses have standing in solidarity with each other, not only across hospitals, but also across state lines.