Gentile and his colleagues are the latest in a wave of healthcare workers – from Washington DC to New York, Calif. – to protest low wages, understaffing and PPE shortages during the pandemic.
The politicization of Covid-19 adds to their challenges. Dozens of states have been slow to implement mask warrants and other public health measures that could slow the spread of the virus, and healthcare workers have reported cases of patients believing the disease to be a hoax even though they were intubated. In North Dakota, nurses infected with the virus who were not showing symptoms were told to continue working due to staff shortages.
“The nurses are totally exhausted,” said Deborah Burger, RN and National Nurses United co-chair. “We have normalized this crisis. We are hiring [hospitals] as if there are normal times and they are not. Nurses who had, say, one [patient] code per shift now see this explode where there are multiple codes in progress. And it is wreaking havoc.
The risks they face are considerable. Lost on the Frontline, a joint Guardian and Kaiser Health News investigation, has identified nearly 1,400 frontline healthcare workers who appear to have died from Covid-19. Almost a third of these workers were nurses. Many more healthcare workers are struggling with illness, trauma and burnout.
Gentile said he heard criticism of nurses stinging when their patients needed it most. “Everyone thinks, ‘Nurses are selfish. Why are they doing this now with a pandemic? “, He said. He said he and his colleagues begged administrators to renegotiate over the summer, when the East Coast was given a brief respite from a high number of cases, and to hire more staff. Nurses say they are paid less than the regional average.
Nurses at hospitals said St Mary’s had a 30% turnover rate, with 243 of their colleagues leaving in the past two years alone, although administration officials say the turnover rate is lower.
Gentile and his colleagues blame staff shortages and an administration that “underestimates” its nurses.
The fact that Gentile and his colleagues are part of a union affords them some protection against retaliation. But other workers who protested the unsafe conditions suffered serious consequences. In March, four Detroit nurses who raised concerns about understaffing and equipment shortages lost their jobs for violating their hospital’s social media policy. A Chicago nurse has been removed from her hospital schedule after emailing colleagues urging them to use more PPE than the hospital provided.
The administrators, who have brought in a fleet of travel nurses to replace the strikers until Sunday morning, when Gentile and others expect to return, had failed to respond to the union’s demands on Friday after- midday. The hospital issued a statement saying it “remains committed to negotiating in good faith” and that its directors are ensuring that “appropriate staffing levels” are maintained.
While it is not known whether the strike will result in immediate policy changes, Gentile said he was encouraged by the solidarity his colleagues have shown, the new treatments for the virus and the prospect of a imminent vaccine.
But his optimism is tempered by the steady increase in cases in his hospital. “We still have four or five months to go,” he said.