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COVID Health Care Worker Stress and Response

February 2, 2022

Summary: Broad evidence documents an exodus of health care workers from various clinical settings due to COVID-related work stresses and frustration with employers’ responses. The question: could health care workers use this moment to demand more?

Why Health-Care Workers are Quitting in Droves
The Atlantic
November 16, 2021
By Ed Yong

“Some health-care workers have lost their jobs during the pandemic, while others have been forced to leave because they’ve contracted long COVID and can no longer work. But many choose to leave, including “people whom I thought would nurse patients until the day they died,” Amanda Bettencourt, the president-elect of the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, told me. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the health-care sector has lost nearly half a million workers since February 2020. Morning Consult, a survey research company, says that 18 percent of health-care workers have quit since the pandemic began, while 12 percent have been laid off.

Morning Consult, in the same survey, found that 31 percent of the remaining health-care workers have considered leaving their employer, while the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses found that 66 percent of acute and critical-care nurses have thought about quitting nursing entirely. “We’ve never seen numbers like that before,” Bettencourt told me.” 

“Nurses excel at “feeling their feelings in a supply closet or bathroom, and then putting their game face back on and jumping into the ring,” Werry said. But she and others are now constantly on the verge of tears, or prone to snapping at colleagues and patients. Some call this burnout, but Gerard Brogan, the director of nursing practice at National Nurses United, dislikes the term because “it implies a lack of character,” he told me. He prefers moral distress—the anguish of being unable to take the course of action that you know is right.”

“Several health-care workers told me that, amid the most grueling working conditions of their careers, their hospitals cut salaries, reduced benefits, and canceled raises; forced staff to work more shifts with longer hours; offered trite wellness tips, such as keeping gratitude journals, while denying paid time off or reduced hours; failed to provide adequate personal protective equipment; and downplayed the severity of their experiences.”

COVID-19’s Impact On Nursing Shortages, The Rise Of Travel Nurses, And Price Gouging
Health Affairs Forefront
January 28, 2022
By Y. Tony Yang and Diana J. Mason

“In a survey of more than 6,500 critical care nurses released in September 2021 by the American Association of Critical Care Nurses, 92 percent of respondents reported that that pandemic had “depleted nurses at their hospitals, and, as a result, their careers will be shorter than they intended.” Sixty-six percent said they were considering leaving the profession because of their COVID-19 experiences; and 76 percent said that unvaccinated patients ‘threatened nurses’ physical and mental well-being.’”

“Travel nursing became popular in the 1980s in response to nursing shortages, but in 2020 traveling grew 35 percent compared to the previous year, and the practice is expected to grow by an additional 40 percent in the future.”

“While hospitals have been facing staffing shortages, the agencies placing travel nurses have been profiting.” 

I’m a Longtime Union Organizer. But I Had Never Seen Anything Like This
New York Times
Jan. 14, 2022
By Vanessa Veselka

“Caregivers at the Rawlin formed a traumatized family, which grew closer with each new death. They called the state. They pleaded with management for more workers and higher wages to retain them — at least something more than what they’d earn at a fast-food restaurant. Not knowing what else to do, they contacted the local union.”

Comment by: Allison K. Hoffman

These three articles all describe the suffering of heath care workers over the past two years, as they shoulder much of the strain of the pandemic while many—especially the caregivers, nursing staff, and nursing home workers—continue to be underpaid and overworked.

As these workers are pushed to the brink, something must give. The Atlantic article describes one possibility: health care workers quit their jobs. The Health Affairs piece describes another: a reshuffling in the nursing workforce with a surge in traveling nurses. Although the nurses usually earn more in these jobs than they might in a full-time position, the major profiteers are the agencies who place them in temporary positions, causing the authors to ask whether the agencies may be in violation of price gauging laws. Finally, this beautiful New York Times opinion piece describes efforts by the caregiving staff at one nursing home to organize a union. Their effort failed in the end.

I wonder, however, if we might see renewed efforts among health care workers to demand greater wages and job protections in the coming years. We could see renewed attempts to organize, although they will face an uphill battle because of the erosion of labor law protection. Yet, if organizing efforts gain steam or if workers are able to demand more from employers in light of labor shortages, the pandemic could produce a long-overdue power reshuffling toward low-wage health care workers.

© Health Justice Monitor
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