Amid surging COVID-19 infections and a years-long staffing crisis made worse by pandemic, nurses at the state’s largest hospital, Maine Medical Center, called on executives Thursday to find a solution to the nursing shortage.
“Maine Med needs to come up with ways to recruit and retain staff. We’re seeing a lot of Band-Aid solutions,” said Meg Dionne, an emergency room nurse at the hospital. “We’re seeing a purge of hospital nurses because of how strenuous the conditions are. We are asking our employer to just come up with solutions.”
The newly unionized nurses at Maine Med joined members of National Nurses United, the country’s largest nurses union, in a nationwide day of action to highlight chronic understaffing in a hospital industry driven by profit. Union members said that hospital executives have driven away many nurses who are not willing to risk their licenses or the safety of their patients by working under unsafe conditions.
It’s not a nursing shortage, union leadership insists, it’s executives’ refusal to maintain a robust pool of registered nurses from which to draw when scheduling shifts.
“The answer to nurses unwilling to work in unsafe conditions is never to overload the remaining nurses with more patients and, in states where it is not prohibited, force them to work mandatory overtime,” NNU president Zenei Triunfo-Cortez said in a statement. “The solution we can start implementing today is for hospitals to immediately staff up every unit, every shift, and create a safe, sustainable work environment where nurses can feel confident about their ability to provide the best nursing care possible for their patients.”
According to NNU, which conducted a survey of thousands of registered nurses across the country from October to December 2021, 82.5% said at least half of their shifts were unsafely staffed. Sixty-eight percent of respondents said that they have considered leaving their position.
Maine nurses noted that staffing issues in the state existed before the pandemic. A University of Southern Maine School of Nursing study in 2017 projected a shortage of 3,200 nurses in the state by 2025. But now, they say hospital executives are trying to make crisis staffing levels the “new normal.”
Executives could consider implementing a variety of new policies to help retain staff, said Dionne, who is 31 weeks pregnant. She is demanding three weeks paid time off to quarantine to protect herself and her child.
“There’s no protections offered by the hospital for pregnant staff at any point in your pregnancy,” Dionne said. “I’m doing the same job I’ve always been doing with no extra safeguards, despite the documented risk.”
She added, “There are 15 outbreak units in the hospital right now. The risk of getting COVID isn’t just from our patients, it’s from staff too.”
In response to staffing shortages, Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, has deployed the National Guard to handle non-clinical jobs in hospitals to free up staff.
Last September, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services also announced that hospitals and long-term care facilities would receive $146 million in state and federal funding to help fill worker shortages.
But the situation still appears dire in some hospitals. St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston is allowing health care workers who have tested positive with COVID to work.
Nurses in Maine and around the country are calling on the Biden administration to reinstate critical protections, after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced plans to withdraw COVID protections for health care workers. They also criticized the White House for allowing the Centers for Disease Control to weaken its quarantine guidelines.
The nurses at Maine Med, who voted to unionize last April after facing a fierce anti-union campaign waged by the hospital, say they feel more empowered now to speak up about the systemic issues they see in the hospital industry.
“If we had tried to do something like this this time last year, there’d be like five of us out here,” Dionne said. “Now, we’ve got this union where we’re figuring out how to advocate for ourselves and for our patients.”
Dionne said nurses feel backed up by the community to tackle big issues, just as they felt supported during the union election.
“You still see signs up in Portland supporting nurses. People see me wearing my union hat, or wear my badge at the grocery store, and they’re supportive. We love that,” she said. “Please keep it up. Nurses and hospital staff need all the support that the community can offer.”
Photo: Maine Med nurses joined members of National Nurses United on Thursday in a nationwide day of action to spotlight chronic understaffing in the hospital industry. | Dan Neumann, BeaconFacebookTwitterShare
Author: Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at dan(at)mainebeacon.com.
Source: Maine Beacon, January 14, 2022, https://mainebeacon.com/joining-nationwide-rally-nurses-union-calls-for-safe-staffing-levels-at-maine-hospitals/