Health care is in crisis.  Nurses’ strike in New York is just the latest sign

Health care is in crisis. Nurses’ strike in New York is just the latest sign

Health care is in crisis.  Nurses’ strike in New York is just the latest sign

New York

Naniaka Camara grew up near Montefiore Hospital in New York’s Bronx and remembers going there for her own medical care. A Montefiore nurse for three years, she still lives minutes from the hospital and often knows the patients in her neighborhood she cares for.

She loves her job, she says, but has been on strike since Monday morning out of frustration at not providing patients with the care they deserve.

It is just the latest in a series of industrial action across the country by unions of nurses and other healthcare workers who say they have had to strike to provide patients with healthcare quality.

“Sometimes I feel like what I did was unnecessary, I apologize for things that have nothing to do with me,” Camara said from the picket line outside the hospital in his neighborhood. She said she is often late delivering medications or other services patients need due to staff shortages that can stretch her shifts to 12 or 2 p.m. She goes to bed as soon as she gets home.

Naniaka Camara, a nurse for 3 years, on the picket line in front of Montefiore, the hospital in her neighborhood where she works.

“I don’t like to think about the previous shift because I don’t want to come for the next one,” she said.

The strike by 7,100 nurses began Monday at the three hospitals in Montefiore, which provide about half of the Bronx’s hospital beds, and Mount Sinai Hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Last year, 5,000 nurses went on strike in Minnesota, as did 2,000 mental health professionals in California and Hawaii. Of the 20 major strikes tracked by the Labor Department in the first 11 months of 2022, seven of them, or 35%, involved health care. Five of them, or 25%, were nurses’ strikes.

A major problem in each of them? Recruitment.

The upsurge in health care-related strikes comes despite the fact that only 3% of nationally unionized members work in private sector health care jobs.

“It is extraordinary this number of [registered nurses] are on strike,” said Bob Muehlenkamp, ​​a retired union organizer with Local 1199, who has spent much of his career organizing and bargaining on behalf of nurses. The problem is not the salary, he says. Nurses are on strike because they want to do their jobs the way they believe they should be.

“There’s a trauma every RN goes through in deciding to walk away from patients,” Muehlenkamp said. “It’s against every instinct they have.”

Only about 10% of nurses are unionized and can strike. But for many of them, going out doesn’t mean going on strike, it means quitting the job they love, exacerbating the shortage.

There are 3.1 million registered nurse jobs nationwide, according to the Labor Department, with about 60%, or 1.9 million, in hospitals.

“An indication of how difficult it is to get nurses is the number of traveling nurses,” said Joshua Gottleib, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago, referring to about 67,000 nurses, or one in 20 people working. in the hospital. , who work for temporary placement services. “That was historically high.”

Hit hospitals use traveling nurses as back-ups for strikers, but it’s an expensive alternative – these nurses are usually paid far more than the jobs they’re replacing. Traveling nurses fill hospitals nationwide, as hospitals cannot fill all of their own positions.

Hospitals have a financial incentive to make do with as few nurses as possible, according to experts who study health issues.

“Labour is the biggest expense in healthcare, so how do you make money? You compress your labor costs,” said Janette Dill, a professor of health policy and management at the University of Minnesota. “Your nursing workforce is your greatest work force.”

Hit New York hospitals insist they are doing all they can to address their own staffing shortages.

Mount Sinai says it has hired more than 4,000 new nurses over the past three years, and now has 503 more nurses are working today than four years ago, surpassing the hiring commitment made in 2019 during the last round of union negotiations.

And he has offered the union what he calls a “robust” staffing enforcement plan to improve the nurse-to-patient ratio, he said., but that when it offered to add 50 more nursing positions, the union said it wanted the money for those extra positions to go to salary increases for existing staff.

The union denies this, saying improving staffing, not wages, is its top priority in these talks.

“We are in a workforce crisis, post this pandemic,” Fran Cartwright, chief nursing officer at Mount Sinai, said in an interview on CNN Monday. “This is especially true in our academic medical centers and it will take time to strengthen the bench.”

Nursing shortages and working conditions have created an upsurge in strikes and organizing efforts, said Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Health Care Workers. Although the staffing shortage predates the pandemic, the pandemic was the tipping point for many nurses.

“They learned during the pandemic that their employer was not worried about their safety, or the safety of their patients,” he said.

ECRI, an independent health care research society, ranks industry staffing shortages as the biggest risk facing American patients today. He doesn’t expect that to change any time soon.

“Unfortunately, there is no short-term solution to this problem,” said Dr Marcus Schabacker, CEO of ECRI.

Beyond the aging US population, part of the current increase in hospital stays is coming from “demand that has been pent up during the pandemic as patients return to hospitals for elective procedures.”

Additionally, there is the “increasing need to treat patients with post-covid complications”. All of this puts additional pressure on a system that has long been understaffed.

The shortage of nurses will get worse, he said. “A few years ago we estimated that by 2025 there would be a shortage of one million nurses nationwide,” Schabacker said. With those leaving the field during the pandemic, that could be an undercount.

ECRI data shows that the median age of a registered nurse is 52, with 20% being 65 or older. The shortage of nurses has also created a shortage of nursing instructors. In 2019, ECRI estimated that more than 80,000 qualified applicants were turned away from nursing schools due to insufficient staff to teach them.

“A lot of nurses join us because they’re motivated to help patients,” Schabacker said. “When there is a shortage, they are inclined to step in and work an extra shift, coming on the weekend. If someone is tired, overworked, sleep deprived, they will make more mistakes.

A nurses’ strike will not help the patients of the short term, he said. “It’s a true and understandable sign of desperation.”

– CNN’s Tami Luhby contributed to this report

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