Tagged Nurses

California Is Overriding Its Limits on Nurse Workloads as Covid Surges

California’s telemetry nurses, who specialize in the electronic monitoring of critically ill patients, normally take care of four patients at once. But ever since the state relaxed California’s mandatory nurse-to-patient ratios in mid-December, Nerissa Black has had to keep track of six.

And these six patients are really sick: Many of them are being treated simultaneously for a stroke and covid-19, or a heart attack and covid. With more patients than usual needing more complex care, Black said she’s worried she’ll miss something or make a mistake.

“We are given 50% more patients and we’re expected to do 50% more things with the same amount of time,” said Black, who has worked at the Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital in Valencia, California, for seven years. “I go home and I feel like I could have done more. I don’t feel like I’m giving the care to my patients like a human being deserves.”

As covid patients continue to flood California emergency rooms, hospitals are increasingly desperate to find enough staffers to care for them all. The state is asking nurses to tend to more patients simultaneously than they typically would, watering down what many nurses and their unions consider their most sacrosanct job protection: a law existing only in California that puts legal restrictions on the nurse-to-patient ratio.

“We need to temporarily — very short-term, temporarily — look a little bit differently in terms of our staffing needs,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom, after he quietly allowed hospitals to adjust their nurse-to-patient ratios on Dec. 11. Usually, California law requires a hospital to first get approval from the state before tinkering with those ratios; Newsom’s move gave hospitals presumptive approval to work outside the ratio rules immediately.

Since then, 188 hospitals, mainly in Southern California, have been operating under the new pandemic ratios: They can require ICU nurses to care for three patients instead of two. Emergency room and telemetry nurses may now be asked to care for six patients instead of four. Medical-surgical nurses are looking after seven patients instead of five.

Nurses have taken to the streets in protest, holding physically distanced demonstrations across the state, shouting and carrying posters that read: “Ratios Save Lives.” The union, the California Nurses Association, says the staffing shortage is a result of bad hospital management, of taking a reactive approach to staffing rather than proactive — laying nurses off over the summer, then not hiring or training enough for winter.

“What we’re seeing in these hospitals is their just-in-time response to a pandemic that they never prepared for — just-in-time staffing, just-in-time resources, not staffing up, calling nurses in on a shift at the very last minute — to boost profits,” said Stephanie Roberson, government relations director for the California Nurses Association. “And we’re seeing how nurses are being stretched even thinner.”

But hospitals say this is an unprecedented crisis that has spiraled beyond their control. In the current surge, four times as many Californians are testing positive for the coronavirus compared with the summer’s peak. As many as 7,000 new patients could soon be coming to California hospitals every day, according to Carmela Coyle, who heads the California Hospital Association.

“This is catastrophic and we cannot dodge this math,” she said. “We are simply out of nurses, out of doctors, out of respiratory therapists.”

The state has asked the federal government for staff, including 200 medical personnel from the Department of Defense, and it’s tried to reactivate the California Health Corps, an initiative to recruit retired health workers to come back to work. But that has yielded few people with the qualifications needed to care for hospitalized covid patients.

Hiring contract nurses from temporary staffing agencies or other states is all but impossible right now, Coyle said.

“Because California surged early during the summer and other parts of the United States then surged afterward,” she said, “those travel nurses are taken.

The next step for hospitals is to try “team nursing,” Coyle said — pulling nurses from other departments, like the operating room, for example, and partnering them with experienced critical care nurses to help care for covid patients.

Joanne Spetz, an economics professor who studies health care workforce issues at the University of California-San Francisco, said hospitals should have started training nurses for team care over the summer, in anticipation of a winter surge, but they didn’t, either because of costs — hospitals lost a lot of revenue from canceled elective surgeries that could have paid for that training — or because of excessive optimism.

California was doing so well,” she said. “It was easy for all of us to believe that we kind of got it under control, and I think there was a lot of belief that we would be able to maintain that.”

The California Nurses Association has good reason to be defensive regarding the integrity of the patient-ratio law, Spetz said. It took 10 years of lobbying and activism before the bill passed the state legislature in 1999, then several more years to overcome multiple court challenges, including one from then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“I’m always kicking their butt, that’s why they don’t like me,” Schwarzenegger famously said of nurses, drawing broad ire from the nurses union and its allies.

Nurses prevailed in the court of public opinion and in law; rules that put a legal cap on the number of patients per nurse finally took effect in 2004. But the long battle made nurses fiercely protective of their win. They’ve even accused hospitals of using the pandemic to try to roll back ratios for good.

“This is the exercise of disaster capitalism at its finest, where [hospital administrators] are completely maximizing their opportunity to take advantage of this crisis,” Roberson said.

Hospitals deny they want to change the ratio law permanently, and Spetz said it’s unlikely they’d succeed if they tried. The public can see that nurses are overworked and burned out by the pandemic, she said, so there would be little support for cutting back their job protections once it’s over.

“To go in and say, ‘Oh, you clearly did so well without ratios when we let you waive them, so let’s just eliminate them entirely,’ I think, would be just adding insult to moral injury,” Spetz said.

Health Workers Unions See Surge in Interest Amid Covid

The nurses at Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, declared on March 6 — by filing the official paperwork — that they were ready to vote on the prospect of joining a national union. At the time, they were motivated by the desire for more nurses and support staff, and to have a voice in hospital decisions.

A week later, as the covid-19 pandemic bore down on the state, the effort was put on hold, and everyone scrambled to respond to the coronavirus. But the nurses’ long-standing concerns only became heightened during the crisis, and new issues they’d never considered suddenly became urgent problems.

Staffers struggled to find masks and other protective equipment, said nurses interviewed for this story. The hospital discouraged them from wearing masks one day and required masks 10 days later. The staff wasn’t consistently tested for covid and often not even notified when exposed to covid-positive patients. According to the nurses and a review of safety complaints made to federal regulators, the concerns persisted for months. And some nurses said the situation fueled doubts about whether hospital executives were prioritizing staff and patients, or the bottom line.

By the time the nurses held their election in September — six months after they had filed paperwork to do so — 70% voted to unionize. In a historically anti-union state with right-to-work laws and the second-least unionized workforce in the country, that margin of victory is a significant feat, said academic experts who study labor movements.

That it occurred during the pandemic is no coincidence.

For months now, front-line health workers across the country have faced a perpetual lack of personal protective equipment, or PPE, and inconsistent safety measures. Studies show they’re more likely to be infected by the coronavirus than the general population, and hundreds have died, according to reporting by KHN and The Guardian.

Many workers say employers and government systems that are meant to protect them have failed.

Research shows that health facilities with unions have better patient outcomes and are more likely to have inspections that can find and correct workplace hazards. One study found New York nursing homes with unionized workers had lower covid mortality rates, as well as better access to PPE and stronger infection control measures, than nonunion facilities.

Recognizing that, some workers — like the nurses at Mission Hospital — are forming new unions or thinking about organizing for the first time. Others, who already belong to a union, are taking more active leadership roles, voting to strike, launching public information campaigns and filing lawsuits against employers.

“The urgency and desperation we’ve heard from workers is at a pitch I haven’t experienced before in 20 years of this work,” said Cass Gualvez, organizing director for Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West in California. “We’ve talked to workers who said, ‘I was dead set against a union five years ago, but covid has changed that.’”

In response to union actions, many hospitals across the country have said worker safety is already their top priority, and unions are taking advantage of a difficult situation to divide staff and management, rather than working together.

Labor experts say it’s too soon to know if the outrage over working conditions will translate into an increase in union membership, but early indications suggest a small uptick. Of the approximately 1,500 petitions for union representation posted on the National Labor Relations Board website in 2020, 16% appear related to the health care field, up from 14% the previous year.

In Colorado, SEIU Local 105 health care organizing director Stephanie Felix-Sowy said her team is fielding dozens of calls a month from nonunion workers interested in joining. Not only are nurses and respiratory therapists reaching out, but dietary workers and cleaning staff are as well, including several from rural parts of the state where union representation has traditionally been low.

“The pandemic didn’t create most of the root problems they’re concerned about,” she said. “But it amplified them and the need to address them.”

A nurse for 30 years, Amy Waters had always been aware of a mostly unspoken but widespread sentiment that talking about unions could endanger her job. But after HCA Healthcare took over Mission Health in 2019, she saw nurses and support staff members being cut and she worried about the effect on patient care. Joining National Nurses United could help, she thought. During the pandemic, her fears only worsened. At times, nurses cared for seven patients at once, despite research indicating four is a reasonable number.

Members of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists went on a two-day strike in November asking for more N95 masks. MultiCare found another vendor for N95s and said it would provide them by mid-December. (Marisa Powell)

In a statement, Mission Health said it has adequate staffing and is aggressively recruiting nurses. “We have the beds, staffing, PPE supplies and equipment we need at this time and we are well-equipped to handle any potential surge,” spokesperson Nancy Lindell wrote. The hospital has required universal masking since March and requires staff members who test positive to stay home, she added.

Although the nurses didn’t vote to unionize until September, Waters said, they began acting collectively from the early days of the pandemic. They drafted a petition and sent a letter to administrators together. When the hospital agreed to provide advanced training on how to use PPE to protect against covid transmission, it was a small but significant victory, Waters said.

“Seeing that change brought a fair number of nurses who had still been undecided about the union to feel like, ‘Yeah, if we work together, we can make change,’” she said.

Old Concerns Heightened, New Issues Arise

Even as union membership in most industries has declined in recent years, health workers unions have remained relatively stable. Experts say it’s partly because of the focus on patient care issues, like safe staffing ratios, which resonate widely and have only grown during the pandemic.

At St. Mary Medical Center outside Philadelphia, short staffing led nurses to strike in November. Donna Halpern, a nurse on the cardiovascular and critical care unit, said staffing had been a point of negotiation with the hospital since the nurses joined the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals in 2019. But with another surge of covid cases approaching, the nurses decided not to wait any longer to take action, she said.

A month later, officials with Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic, which owns the hospital, announced a tentative labor agreement with the union. The contract “gives nurses a voice in discussions on staffing while preserving the hospital’s right and authority to make all staffing decisions,” the hospital said in a statement.

In Colorado, where state inspection reports show understaffing led to a patient death at a suburban Denver hospital, SEIU Local 105 has launched a media campaign about unsafe practices by the hospital’s parent company, HealthOne. The union doesn’t represent HealthOne employees, but union leaders said they felt compelled to act after repeatedly hearing concerns.

In a statement, HealthOne said staffing levels are appropriate across its hospitals and it is continuing to recruit and hire staff members.

Covid is also raising entirely new issues for workers to organize around. At the forefront is the lack of PPE, which was noted in one-third of the health worker deaths catalogued by KHN and The Guardian.

Nurses at Albany Medical Center in New York picketed on Dec. 1 with signs demanding PPE and spoke about having to reuse N95 masks up to 20 times.

The hospital told KHN it follows federal guidelines for reprocessing masks, but intensive care nurse Jennifer Bejo said it feels unsafe.

At MultiCare Indigo Urgent Care clinics in Washington state, staff members were provided only surgical masks and face shields for months, even when performing covid tests and seeing covid patients, said Dr. Brian Fox, who works at the clinics and is a member of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists. The company agreed to provide N95 masks after staffers went on a two-day strike in November.

MultiCare said it found another vendor for N95s in early December and is in the process of distributing them.

PPE has also become a rallying point for nonunion workers. At a November event handing out PPE in El Paso, Texas, more than 60 workers showed up in the first hour, said SEIU Texas President Elsa Caballero. Many were not union members, she said, but by the end of the day, dozens had signed membership cards to join.

Nurses at Albany Medical Center picketed on Dec.1, asking for more personal protective equipment. They say they’re having to reuse N95 masks up to 20 times. (Hans Pennink)
Members of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists went on a two-day strike in November asking for more N95 masks. MultiCare found another vendor for N95s and said it would provide them by mid-December. (Marisa Powell)

Small Successes, Gradual Movement

Organized labor is not a panacea, union officials admit. Their members have faced PPE shortages and high infection rates throughout the pandemic, too. But collective action can help workers push for and achieve change, they said.

National Nurses United and the National Union of Healthcare Workers said they’ve each seen an influx in calls from nonmembers, but whether that results in more union elections is yet to be seen.

David Zonderman, an expert in labor history at North Carolina State University, said safety concerns like factory fires and mine collapses have often galvanized collective action in the past, as workers felt their lives were endangered. But labor laws can make it difficult to organize, he said, and many efforts to unionize are unsuccessful.

Health care employers, in particular, are known to launch aggressive and well-funded anti-union campaigns, said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies expert at Rutgers university. Still, workers might be more motivated by what they witnessed during the pandemic, she said.

“An experience like treating patients in this pandemic will change a health care worker forever,” Givan said, “and will have an impact on their willingness to speak out, to go on strike and to unionize if needed.”