Shortage Spurs Nurses to Strike
It was a scenario that nurse Linda Warino had come to dread: Too many patients. Not enough nurses. No volunteers to work overtime.
About once a week - and she only works three days a week - she said she was required to work beyond her 12-hour shift. It led her and her colleagues in Youngstown, Ohio, to walk off their hospital jobs in a demand for better conditions and pay. They have been on strike now for 31 days. (ONA/UAN)
Warino, a nurse for 28 years, said it wasn't just long hours or salary issues that prompted the 770 nurses at Youngstown's Forum Health hospital system to act. They feared patient care was suffering.
``Let's be real. In your 14th or 15th hour you are not as good as you are in your first, second or third hour,'' she said.
Dissatisfaction with pay and increasingly stressful work conditions, aggravated by a shortage of nurses at hospitals across the country, is spurring job actions and the formation of nurses' unions at more hospitals.
Minneapolis this week faced the threat of what was being called the largest such strike ever, involving 7,700 nurses at a dozen hospitals. Agreements were reached at five of the hospitals by Thursday, but 5,400 nurses at the remaining seven hospitals still were set to strike early Friday. (MNA/UAN)
The hospitals had recruited more than 3,000 replacement nurses, who were flying in from around the country.
``A strike of this size shows this isn't one woman with a gripe. It shows this is a very serious problem,'' said Cheryl Johnson, president of United American Nurses, which represents more than 100,000 nurses in 26 states. ``If nurses don't have safe and good working conditions, no one gets the kind of care they deserve.''
Across the country, there have been seven nursing strikes so far this year, and two are still under way. There were 10 last year and 21 in 1999. By comparison, there were just four strikes in 1995.
Last year, 19 percent of the country's 1.3 million hospital nurses were unionized, up from 17 percent in 1999 and 16 percent in 1990. The UAN is now campaigning to unionize nurses in 18 more hospital systems.
The increased union activity is coming at a time when hospital finances are being squeezed by lower reimbursements from both private and government insurers. A third of all hospitals operate at a loss, according to the American Hospital Association.
Hospital administrators acknowledged that nurses work very hard, and that the work is getting harder as the age of the average patient rises and the incidence of chronic and serious diseases, including AIDS (news - web sites), increases. At many hospitals, cutbacks mean not only fewer nurses but also less support staff for non-medical duties such as delivering meals.
Warino, in Youngstown, described her situation this way, ``There are less nurses on the unit so there is more stress. When I come home at night now I don't feel the same satisfaction I once did. Now I come home at night and hope I didn't make any mistakes.''
But hospital managers say there are scant funds for generous raises or for hiring more staff. Nurses' annual salaries range from an average $37,622 in Iowa to $55,296 in California.
The nationwide shortage at hospitals is occurring despite a 39 percent increase in the number of registered nurses nationwide in the last five years, to 2.74 million. More of these nurses - about two out of five - are choosing not to work in hospitals or nursing homes. They opt for easier, better-paying jobs at health maintenance organizations or pharmaceutical companies.
The Department of Health and Human Services (news - web sites) predicts a shortage of 400,000 nurses by 2020.
``How are unions going to solve the nursing shortage,'' asks Pamela Thompson, executive director of the American Organization of Nurse Executives, a division of the American Hospital Association. ``The hospital environment is tough, and unions are just a third voice entering when nurses and hospital executives should be working together to solve issues of patient care.''
Still, hospitals have anted up to keep nurses from striking or to lure them back when they have.
After striking for 49 days against the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. last year, the DCNA/UAN nurses forced the END of mandatory overtime and won a 15 percent raise over three years. A strike also ended mandatory overtime at St. John's Hospitals in Oxnard and Camarillo, Calif., where nurses won a 22 percent raise over three years and a greater voice in management.
A threatened strike prompted the elimination of mandatory overtime at Aliquippa Community Hospital in Pennsylvania. And nurses at Crouse Hospital in Syracuse, N.Y. won raises of between 21 and 40 percent. In Minneapolis, hospitals were agreeing this week to raises of as much as 19 percent over three years.
Union organizers contend that victories like these will improve work conditions and lure more nurses back into hospitals.
Still, Johnson concedes it isn't easy to get nurses to unionize. Hospitals actively discourage organization, she said, and nurses don't want to do anything that could be perceived as hindering patient care.
At Shore Memorial Hospital in Somers Point, N.J., the vote among its 403 nurses to unionize won by just 29 votes. (NYSNA/UAN)
The nurses say they were upset about an increase in the number of patients under each nurse's care, and also were worried by rumors that mandatory overtime was coming.
``We really felt we needed a voice,'' said Barbara Francesco, who has spent 20 of her 22 years as a nurse at Shore Memorial
Francesco said veteran nurses also were upset that the hospital seemed to be spending more money on recruiting new nurses than on the ones it already had. She said she had not received a raise in three years.
``The salaries simply have to go up if we are going to attract young people to the profession. We also need to reward nurses we have,'' Johnson said.