Walkouts and strikes hit hospitals in pandemic hot spots

·6 min read

Hospitals taxed by the pandemic over the last 20 months have a new problem: Labor strife and a wave of resignations have people waiting longer for care.

Months of marathon shifts, an onslaught of verbal and even physical abuse from patients and the public, and perennial complaints over low pay and staffing shortages are stirring unrest at a particularly critical moment in the pandemic.

There have been at least 30 strikes of health care workers so far this year, according to a tracker from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. More than a half million health care workers quit in August, the last month for which data is available. That’s the most in a single month in more than 20 years.

The resignations and strikes hit as hospitals are dealing with the Delta variant, an influx of chronically ill patients who postponed care last year and, in many states, bracing for the colder months when Covid cases are expected to rise and flu season grips the nation.

The labor issues also come amid a broader staffing crunch that has forced health systems in regions hit hard by the Delta variant to rely evermore on expensive traveling nurses, the National Guard or state officials loosening licensing requirements to expand the pool of possible staff.

The frustration is translating into organized walkouts across the country. Thousands of workers are striking in some of the nation’s largest health systems, from Kaiser Permanente on the west coast to Catholic Health in Buffalo, N.Y. On Monday, 250 nurses in Chicago’s Community First Medical Center voted to go on strike.

Multiple employees contacted by POLITICO said health care workers feel like they’ve gone from “heroes to zeroes” in the eyes of the public, making it harder to tolerate the underlying stresses of the job.

“It got to the point where seeing signs outside the hospitals — “Heroes Work Here” — appeared a little hollow,” Denise Duncan, president of United Nurses of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, told POLITICO. “It’s almost like it’s been forgotten.”

Health care workers who spoke with POLITICO say they had hoped to capitalize on the public goodwill they banked at the outset of the health crisis and seize this moment while demand for their services has never been higher. While they acknowledge they may incur public scorn for walking off the job in the middle of the pandemic, they say they have no choice but to exert what leverage they have.

Even when they were feted with flyovers and salutes in the depths of the pandemic, they said they never got the protective equipment they needed. Now, on top of being burned out from nearly two years of fighting Covid, they’re being targeted threatened with physical violence.

“We’re drowning here,” said Mike Pineda, a senior transport technician at Sutter Delta Medical Center in Antioch, Calif., and a steward for the hospital’s SEIU-UHW union, which recently went on strike, accusing management of understaffing and fostering a difficult work environment.

“The wear and tear on everyone got to the point where people became frustrated,” Pineda said. “People would take leaves of absence because [their] body is just burnt out.”

Many staff members in Antioch — and across the country — say worker shortages mean it takes longer to admit people from the emergency room, and an increased risk of infections and accidents as fewer nurses care for more patients.

In a statement, Sutter Health said labor issues were largely avoided across its system, but acknowledged “longstanding staffing issues.”

Kaiser Permanente in Southern California this week voted to authorize its 21,000 members to strike, upset over what they say is low pay and benefits particularly for new employees.

Another 3,400 Kaiser workers in Oregon, members of the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Healthcare Professionals, also voted to strike over similar concerns. Negotiations with management are ongoing.

Whether it’s because of low staffing, inadequate pay or workplace conditions, health care employees, more than ever, are looking to wring concessions from management.

“From our members, I’ve never heard the word ‘strike’ uttered so many times, whether they’re covered by a contract or not. Whether they’re in negotiations or not,” said Jamie Lucas, the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals. “They’re fed up. The reasons have always been there, but there’s a new realization that they have the upper hand.”

While the vaccine mandates hospitals recently imposed have triggered some isolated walkouts and strike threats, leaders in the industry say the unrest is mainly fueled by the way the pandemic has exacerbated unacceptable working conditions.

“It’s not fair to blame staff shortages on the vaccination requirements,” said President Randi Weingarten with the American Federation of Teachers, which represents tens of thousands of health workers around the country. “The lion’s share of people willingly got their shots. This unrest preceded and predated Covid and it has to do with terrible pay and working conditions.”

Hospital executives acknowledge that staffing issues have been a longstanding problem that was made exponentially worse by Covid-19, which exposed the fragility of the health care system. The Biden administration’s promised surge of federal personnel was far short of what was needed. States that didn't get staffing help received supplemental funding but couldn't find enough doctors and health workers to fill gaps at hospitals.

“We are seeing a record number of resignations in some areas,” said Shereef Elnahal, the CEO of University Hospital in Newark, N.J., with burnout from “unprecedented” patient loads and higher wages offered by staffing firms as factors.

Elnahal said emergency department staffing was particularly hard-hit during the pandemic and he suspects staffing shortages nationwide are behind the recent spikes in hospital-acquired infections.

The demand for employees has created what amounts to a bidding war among hospitals over traveling nurses, with the hospitals paying up to $10,000 a week to staffing agencies for temporary nurses to fill shifts. That can create the uncomfortable scenario of employees working side-by-side with temporary workers who are commanding a higher wage. It can also lead to some permanent staff leaving their hospital position to become traveling nurses, aggravating the staffing crisis.

Health care workers and those who represent them say that for most of last year, they operated in emergency mode, with a just-get-through-it mentality. Covid has dragged on so long, that those working on the front lines say they can’t take it any longer.

“You can do anything for a week, but not when it looks like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel,” said Mark Wietecha, CEO of the Children’s Hospital Association. “No one thought we’d still be in this place in October of 2021.”

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