Events Began Nov. 17 and Continued Through Mid-December
Across the country, fellow nurses have spoken out about the challenges of providing care in a pandemic. In painstaking detail, we have described what it was like to work until our souls and physical bodies could take no more. We urged health systems to provide more resources to enable us to care for patients and ourselves, including hiring more nurses to address staffing shortages. Some nurses have even left the profession after experiencing burnout, poor working conditions, hostility from the very patients they were charged with caring for, and a sense that their employers viewed them as disposable. While we pleaded for more help, we watched our health systems hire travel nurses and pay them significantly more than us for doing the same job. That has led to a hemorrhaging of staff that was completely preventable. The question becomes: Where do we go from here?
Nurses are Fighting Back
Now many nurses are fighting back. For instance, health care workers from five different facilities, representing over 10,000 workers, have hosted a series of rolling actions to detail dangerously low staffing at some of New York’s most prominent care facilities. Our union siblings are noting that short staffing is a direct consequence of hospital systems failing to hire enough nurses, compensate them appropriately and improve overall working conditions. Nurses must now take our case to the communities that will be most impacted by understaffing. Our rolling actions began on November 17 and were detailed in a front-page story in the New York Daily News on Tuesday, November 16.
My union colleague Noemi De Jesus-Aponte, who works at Presbyterian in Washington Heights, shared with the New York Daily News that NYSNA members and hospital systems “have known for 15 years that 2020 was going to be the largest retirement because of the baby boomers. The retirees left, and hospital systems froze, and they didn’t fill those positions.”
Because nurses enter the profession to help others, we are particularly distressed when short staffing compromises our ability to provide quality care. In a reported piece for The Atlantic, Ed Yong notes that “one in five health-care workers has left medicine since the pandemic started.” He cosigned my sentiment that “Healthcare workers want to help their patients, and their inability to do so properly is hollowing them out.”
Asked to Do More with Less
In hospital systems across the state, nurses are caring for far more patients with varying acuity than state law allows. What we are seeing is not a matter of fate — it is a matter of political will; and despite the rhetoric, many hospital systems lack the will to do what is right for caregivers and patients alike. In fact, they have played a sleight of hand, seducing the public to focus on vaccine mandates to shift the focus from where it needs to be: on hiring more nurses and investing in costlier measures (such as better ventilation and more research and training on airborne transmission) to keep our communities safe.
While the actions occurred at New York-Presbyterian Columbia, New York-Presbyterian Hudson Valley, Mount Sinai Morningside/West, Staten Island University Hospital/Northwell, and Montefiore Bronx, this is an issue impacting all hospitals in New York. I believe more health systems will face increasing speak-outs and other actions by team members if they do not do more to improve conditions for nurses and other healthcare workers.
For our part, NYSNA will become increasingly vocal about the need to preserve healthcare workers; doing so requires stronger contracts. As we conclude these rolling actions, we’ll head into the Dec. 6 bargaining conference, and continue to ramp up our work to prepare to rene-gotiate contracts that will give caregivers the chance to prioritize patients rather than be derailed by understaffing.
Given the tens of thousands of workers who went on strike or narrowly averted a strike this fall, we know workers are serious, and we aim to fight for that which gives us and the people we serve a true shot at surviving and thriving.