WASHINGTON (TBEN) — Even as 7,000 nurses return to work at two of New York’s busiest hospitals after a three-day strike, colleagues across the country say it’s only a matter of time before frontline workers at other hospitals begin the picket line to walk.
Problems are mounting in hospitals across the country as they try to deal with widespread staffing shortages, overworked nurses knocked down by the pandemic and a broken pipeline of new nurses.
That has left nurses juggling dangerously high caseloads, said Michelle Collins, dean of the college of nursing and health at Loyola University in New Orleans.
“There’s no place that’s immune to what’s happening with the nurse shortage,” Collins said. “It is everywhere.”
Union leaders say the preliminary contract agreement ending the strike by nurses at Mount Sinai Hospital and Montefiore Medical Center, each privately owned, nonprofit hospital with more than 1,000 beds in New York City, will alleviate chronic staff shortages and raise wages by 19% over three years.
The strike, which ended Thursday, was just the latest dispute between nurses and their employers.
Last year, six unions, representing a total of 32,000 nurses, launched strikes outside hospital systems across the country, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Those strikes represented about a quarter of all major strikes in the US last year, up from the previous year.
The president of the American Nurses Association, Dr. Jennifer Mensik Kennedy, describes hospital settings where nurses can’t take breaks because they’re assigned too many patients — some of whom advocate for frontline worker care — that some nurses may think their only option is to strike.
“Nurses don’t feel like their voices have been heard on this exact issue,” she told The The Bharat Express News on Wednesday. “Nurses now feel they have to strike. That can continue.”
In California, nurse unions at two hospitals are likely to go on strike this year when their contracts expire, said former nurse Peter Sidhu, who now works for the state union. Sidhu, who objects to statewide nurses who say their workload is unsafe, has received 7,000 such complaints at Los Angeles County hospitals since December. He said objections have at least doubled since the start of the pandemic.
“What I’ve seen is that in areas where we traditionally have good staff, even they are bombarded with patients and a lack of resources,” Sidhu said.
Years before COVID-19 hit, some hospitals were beset by nurse shortages, and signs of a crisis loomed, with much of the workforce approaching retirement age.
A policy letter from the Department of Health and Human Services last year found that more than half of nurses were over the age of 50, a much higher percentage compared to the total U.S. workforce, where only a quarter of people are 55 or older. is older.
Aspiring nurses are lining up to replace those retirees, but even that silver lining has a catch, with widespread teacher shortages in nursing schools. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, nearly 92,000 qualified nursing school applicants were denied entry into a program in 2021, largely due to a shortage of educators.
The American Nurses Association asked Xavier Becerra, Secretary of Health and Human Services, to declare the nurse shortage a national crisis by the end of 2021.
“Nurses have remained steadfast on the front lines since the beginning of the pandemic, overcoming challenges and risks to their personal health and safety, such as limited personal protective equipment and the physical, emotional and mental health burden of the COVID-19 virus.” the then president of the association wrote in a letter to the secretary.
Becerra has not declared a crisis, but has met with associations and other healthcare leaders to discuss the shortage.
“This has been an ongoing problem for some time,” Mensik Kennedy said Wednesday. “We really need to work with Congress and our healthcare system to address these issues. Nurses cannot solve these problems alone.”
The federal agency has pumped more money into its National Health Service Corps program, which covers student education for health professionals serving in communities in dire need. Since 2019, the program has nearly doubled the number of nurses and nursing educators it sponsors.
The number of nurses working in the profession is starting to return to pre-pandemic levels, said Dave Auerbach, research director for the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission.
But hospitals in particular are still struggling to get those nurses back to work on their wards, he noted.
“That sounds more like a question of the attractiveness of the jobs’ working conditions,” Auerbach said. “Some of it is beyond the control of the hospitals in those jobs.”
Sidhu left his job as an ICU nurse last year when a third COVID spike hit, after being one of the first to volunteer for the COVID unit when the pandemic hit.
He notices a cultural change in the profession. Fewer nurses want to work several days a week in 12-hour shifts. Many take jobs in clinics, where weekend or night shifts are not required. Others have transitioned into telehealth jobs, working from the comfort of their homes.
Some are just burnt out from working in a hospital.
“Before the pandemic, I sometimes knew I was going to have a bad night,” said Sidhu. “Now every time you walk into the facility, you don’t just worry about what patients you’re going to have — now you have four (patients) and you know you’re not going to have any resources.”
Still, strong interest in the profession led Loyola University New Orleans to launch an accelerated program this year aimed at sophomores who already have a bachelor’s degree.
April Hamilton, a 55-year-old food writer, cooking teacher, and mother from Baton Rouge, La., will be walking into her first grade when that new nursing program begins Tuesday.
She has read the headlines about staff shortages and stressful working conditions in hospitals. She has also seen the hard work of nurses firsthand: four years ago she was in hospital 24 hours a day as her daughter spent 40 days in intensive care recovering from a fall that resulted in an amputated hand and 20 surgeries.
“Witnessing my daughter’s miracle energizes me,” said Hamilton. “I’m done. I want to be part of the solution.”