Workers, employers at odds over healthcare staffing shortage

As healthcare providers offer bonuses and other perks to attract new employees amid a growing workforce shortage, staff unions say that’s not enough as their members face personal protective equipment shortages and unsafe staffing ratios.

National Nurses United, a union representing more than 175,000 members nationwide, on Thursday said the country isn’t facing a workforce shortage but instead a shortage of nurses willing to risk their licenses or the safety or their patients by working in unsafe conditions. And other unions, like SEIU Healthcare, have held protests demanding better protections during the pandemic.

“By deliberately refusing to staff our nation’s hospital units with enough nurses to safely and optimally care for patients, the hospital industry has driven nurses away from direct patient care,” National Nurses United said.

Providers are searching for workers as the delta variant creates COVID-19 surges across the country. In some cases, hospitals are diverting patients and postponing electing procedures because they don’t have enough workers to meet the demand. Likewise, nursing homes have been unable to admit new residents due to staff shortages. Yet, workers say a lack of personal protective equipment and safety precautions is forcing them out of the profession.

“The hospital industry is crying false tears over the lack of nurses willing to stay in direct care when these untenable working conditions are entirely of their own making,” National Nurses United said.

Ernest Grant, president of the American Nurses Association, an organization representing 4.2 million registered nurses, said he is very concerned about the mental and physical health of nurses who are on the front lines.

“Something needs to be done to alleviate the stress and strain that they are under,” Grant said, including getting the public vaccinated, valuing nurses more and paying them well.

Some hospitals have offered signing bonuses as high as $25,000. They’re also raising the minimum wage and providing training and career advancement opportunities for workers.

Robyn Begley, senior vice president and chief nursing officer for the American Hospital Association and CEO of the American Organization for Nursing Leadership, said shortages of healthcare workers were projected long before the pandemic began as demand has grown and nurses have reached retirement age.

“Hospital and health system leaders have used a variety of approaches to recruit, retain and support their workforce and have advocated that Congress and the administration prioritize programs that help address this vital national need, such as scholarships and loan repayment for nurses and nursing faculty,” Begley said.

Rachel Norton, a critical care nurse who works on an as-needed basis for a system in Denver, said hospitals need to offer more retention bonuses so that nurses don’t leave for higher paying travel positions and are instead rewarding for staying. Providers also need to have guaranteed breaks, flexible schedules and safe staffing ratios, she said.

“Nurses need to be incentivized to work,” Norton said.

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