Last April people across America came out of quarantine each night to cheer the healthcare workers fighting to save lives a the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Sixteen months on, nurses around the US are holding strikes and picket actions amid claims of deteriorating working conditions and severe understaffing issues.
“Most of us felt like we went from heroes to zeroes quickly,” said Dominique Muldoon, a nurse for more than 20 years at Saint Vincent’s hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts.
For over four months, more than 700 nurses at the Tenet Healthcare-owned Saint Vincent hospital have been on strike, the second longest nurses’ strike in Massachusetts’ history. The hospital has brought in replacement workers throughout the strike and have spent more than $30,000 a day on police coverage during the strike.
Muldoon, co-chair of the local bargaining unit, said understaffing worsened during the pandemic, with more staffing cuts and furloughs, while nurses worked through breaks and past scheduled shifts to try to keep up with the demand for patient care.
“Nurses were going home at night in their cars crying,” said Muldoon. “You’ll end up staying late or working through your break trying to fit the workload all in, but ultimately become so frustrated, because eventually you keep trying to overcompensate and cannot keep up with it.”
Even through coronavirus surges, Muldoon affirmed understaffing and cuts were the “new normal” at the hospital, despite nurses going above and beyond during an emergency situation to take care of patients.
“We’ve done our jobs long enough to know what standard we should need for patients,” she said.
Marlena Pellegrino, a nurse at Saint Vincent hospital, said nurses and the union tried to negotiate with the hospital administration to enact safe staffing ratios since before the pandemic, but their concerns were repeatedly brushed aside.
“The respect for our profession was not evident by this employer and it’s been going on for a long time. I think the pandemic shined a spotlight on that. We worked through some very tumultuous times where our employer could have stepped up to assist us instead of being an obstacle in our way of trying to care for our patients,” said Pellegrino. “When there aren’t enough nurses at the bedside, bad things can happen to patients so we were forced to take this step until they’re resolved.”
Tenet Healthcare did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Kathy Haff, an emergency room nurse at Community First medical center for 29 years, explained the hospital lost a significant number of nurses on staff during the pandemic, including three nurses who died from the virus, and now nurses are working severely understaffed and with inadequate equipment to perform their duties.
“They don’t appreciate us. They claim to, but they don’t. They just take advantage of us left and right,” said Haff. “We’re working at half staff basically. They don’t care that we’re short. They just keep loading us up and keep criticizing if you’re not moving fast enough. There is no appreciation. All those ‘healthcare heroes’ signs were garbage. We didn’t believe one bit of them. We’re like, yeah whatever. We’re like healthcare suckers because they didn’t protect us.”
Community First medical center denied staffing issues. “Community First has policies and protocols to evaluate daily volumes and acuity by department by each shift or more frequently, as needed,” said the interim CEO for the hospital in a statement.
About 1,400 nurses at USC Keck hospital and USC Norris Cancer hospital in Los Angeles held a two-day strike on 13 and 14 July over understaffing and patient safety concerns.
Thousands of nurses represented by National Nurses United at hospitals throughout California and Texas held a day of action on 21 July to call attention to workplace issues highlighted by the pandemic.
Juan Anchondo, a nurse for nearly 18 years at Las Palmas medical center in El Paso, Texas, explained staffing issues at his hospital have worsened throughout the pandemic as nearby hospitals have lured workers away with bonuses and better pay, and support nurses from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) left several months ago after assisting with Covid-19 surges in the region.
“People don’t take breaks,” said Anchondo. “One of the things we’re trying to negotiate is a relief break nurse, so nurses can properly decompress and take a break without interruptions.”
Kimberly Smith, an ICU nurse for 12 years at the Corpus Christi medical center in Texas, said unsafe staffing was a prevailing issue in new union contract negotiations but that these important issues to nurses have fallen by the wayside for the sake of profits and public relations campaigns asserting nurses are heroes for working on the frontlines during the pandemic and empty thank you events where nurses were given free hotdogs.
“I just want to be safe at work. I don’t need a hotdog. You’re telling me I’m a hero and how wonderful I am. Just make the working conditions safe. That’s all nurses want. We want to feel like we’re able to give the best care we can and have enough resources to do it,” said Smith, who added that nurses regularly skip breaks because there is no staff to relieve them. ‘‘Even before the pandemic the staffing wasn’t this bad. It’s been a horrible year. Nurses have passed away, are getting out of the profession, they’re retiring.”
A Corpus Christi Medical Center spokesperson denied staffing shortages at the hospital. “Our goal since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has been to protect our frontline clinicians and caregivers so they are able to continue to care for our patients and our communities,” they said. “We have worked to procure the much-needed PPE, supplies and staffing resources needed to combat this pandemic.”