NEARLY 800 nurses at a Bucks County hospital in Pennsylvania went on strike last Tuesday and Wednesday over dangerously low staffing levels that prevent them from providing high-quality care to patients.
The nurses work at St. Mary Medical Centre in Langhorne, Bucks County, one of the most profitable hospitals in the region.
They walked off the job as coronavirus cases surged across the region – and after eight months of caring for patients in a pandemic.
The nurses, who are members of health-care union Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP), say they have no choice but to strike now as they fear the staffing situation will only grow more dire since Covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths are expected to rise this winter.
The nurses went on strike to state their concern for low staffing levels, not enough nurses, and to demand competitive wages.
Beth Redwine, a ‘mother and baby’ nurse who had been on the picket line on Tuesday since it began at 7am, said that she and her colleagues were striking for the community.
‘Truly, the reason we are out here is that if, God forbid, they have to come to the hospital, we can give them the care and attention they deserve,’ she said.
Redwine, aged 42, of Quakertown, said that during her 12-hour shifts, she often finds herself doing the work of the unit secretary and the nursing assistant because staff is stretched too thin.
‘It would make a huge difference,’ she said, ‘if Trinity Health paid nurses better.’
Redwine makes about $41 an hour. She said she has seen nurses leave for jobs that make $6 or $7 more per hour.
The nurses at St. Mary, who voted to unionise with PASNAP last year, were bargaining their first contract when Covid-19 hit.
They’ve now been in negotiations for more than a year.
Meanwhile, members of the largest nurses’ union in the United States have warned of dire stresses on the healthcare system as the country sees a new surge in Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations.
In a news conference on Monday, members of the National Nurses United, which represents 170,000 registered nurses across the US, detailed harrowing accounts of hospital understaffing, a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and an inadequate response from local and federal authorities.
Last Saturday, the US surpassed 12 million confirmed coronavirus cases.
More than 247,000 people have died in the country after contracting Covid-19, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.
Despite a lull in hospitalisations in the middle of the year, the numbers of patients currently hospitalised has more than doubled as the US enters its colder months.
As of last Friday, more than 83,000 patients in the US were hospitalised with Covid-19, according to the Covid Tracking Project.
Officials in some areas have warned that hospitals could face stresses worse than they did during the first major outbreak earlier in the year.
Data from the Health and Human Services Department released last week showed that 18 per cent of hospitals across all 50 states, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico report being ‘critically’ short on staff.
North Dakota is the worst hit, with 51 per cent of hospitals reporting shortages. Seven other states are above the 30 per cent mark.
‘Nearly one year into this pandemic, our hospitals are still not prepared,’ said Jean Ross, the president of the union and a registered nurse in Minnesota.
She said a survey of nurses conducted by the organisation found that 80 per cent of hospitals in the US have not done adequate planning for a surge in cases.
‘Our government and healthcare employers have not implemented what is needed since the pandemic started,’ she said.
‘We are still fighting for safe staffing and optimal PPE, as well as proper infection control measures.’
Marissa Lee, a labour and delivery nurse in Kissimmee, Florida, said most nurses at the hospital where she works, the Osceola Regional Medical Centre, only receive optimal PPE that provides ‘airborne and droplet precaution’ when they are working directly with patients who are known to be infected with Covid-19. Otherwise, she said, they receive less protective surgical masks.
‘We need PPE… PPE is the key word to everything we’re speaking about here,’ said Lee, who added that staffing levels have become ‘unsafe’ with personnel regularly shifted to departments outside of their expertise.
Consuelo Vargas, an emergency room nurse in Chicago, Illinois, which has seen record daily cases this month, described PPE shortages at the public John H Stroger Jr Hospital of Cook County.
She also described a shortage of staff amid an influx of patients forced to use the ‘emergency room’ for primary care after losing their employer-provided insurance amid the pandemic.
She added the hospital has not been properly separating infected individuals from the population.
‘Last last week, I reached a point where I was numb. I didn’t feel tired. I didn’t feel happy. I didn’t feel angry,’ she said.
‘I didn’t feel frustrated and I didn’t feel sad. I literally felt nothing. And that is a scary place for nurses to be.’
Vargas called for more transparency from both hospital administrations and the government, while urging people to take precautions to prevent the further spread of the virus.
A spokeswoman for Cook County Health, Deborah Song, acknowledged that hospital staffing levels have been a ‘challenge across the country,’ but threatened to cut them still further.
‘We do not have the resources to pay the exorbitant rates or bonuses that other hospitals can afford or to contract with agencies to keep staff in waiting until they are needed,’ she said.
‘As such, should staffing be challenged beyond what we can afford, we will likely be faced with further reducing services to shift staff to areas of need. This is the unfortunate reality of this pandemic.’
US health officials warned this week against travelling and gathering for the Thanksgiving holiday tomorrow, but millions of Americans have not heeded that call.
The Transportation Security Administration said that more than three million people were screened at airports last Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the highest traffic since March.
‘I know the holidays season is upon us. Are you willing to give up one holiday season for 10 more?’ said Vargas.
‘Think of everything you want to accomplish in your life, the places you want to go, the things you want to do, the people you want to spend time with? Are you willing to give all that up?’
Christina Hanson, a nurse in Marquette, Michigan, a state that has also seen record case numbers this month, called on state officials across the country, many of whom have been resistant to imposing restrictions or mandates for masks in public, to ‘meet us where we are’.
‘We shoulder a level of concern and anxiety that we will contract this virus ourselves and spread it to our loved ones,’ Hanson said.
‘Nurses are tough, but as strong and dedicated as our nurses are, what we are doing is not sustainable. We see the cases climbing across the country and are anxious for what’s to come. We need change.’
- One of Louisiana’s largest employers has earned billions in profits during the pandemic – but that hasn’t translated into higher pay or safer working conditions for its employees. According to a new report published by the Institute for Policy Studies, in partnership with Step Up Louisiana and others, a handful of billionaire companies – including Walmart, which employs over 34,000 people in Louisiana – have seen their profits soar to record levels as a result as their monopoly status as an essential business during the pandemic.
According to the report, the owners of Walmart – Rob, Jim, and Alice Walton – have seen a combined personal wealth increase of over $48 billion during the pandemic.
Walmart’s CEO makes more than 1,118 times the average Walmart employee, and yet, the company refused to provide hazard pay to its workers.
Because they are deemed ‘essential’ during the pandemic, these workers have had to put themselves at considerable risk of illness in spite of not receiving paid sick leave, or in many cases medical benefits.
Walmart is only one of what the report calls the ‘Delinquent Dozen’ – 12 companies whose profits have soared at the expense of their workers and communities.
Other companies listed are Amazon, Instacart, Tyson Foods, Target, Dollar General and Dollar Tree, Prospect Health, TeamHealth, Envision Health, Cerberus Capital (owners of Albertons, Safeway, and Steward Health), Petsmart, and Petco.
Ten of the billionaire owners of seven of the companies named in the report have seen their combined personal wealth increase by $127.5 billion.
Meanwhile, essential workers and their families and communities are exposed to a surge in Covid-19 infection rates and hospitalisations worse than the initial wave of the pandemic.
Labour activists in the US say big retailers like Amazon and Walmart must do more to protect workers as surging coronavirus cases coincide with the holiday shopping rush.
They are calling for hazard pay, paid sick leave and better communication about outbreaks, among other things.
A recent analysis by the Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank, found that company profits at 13 of America’s biggest retailers increased by an average of 39% this year.