COVID-fatigued health workers are mobilizing

https://www.axios.com/2022/06/02/health-care-workers-unions-covid-fatigue

Health care workers nationwide are organizing and pushing for workplace changes like better pay or more favorable staffing ratios after waves of pandemic-fueled burnout and frustration.

Why it matters: COVID-19 and its aftereffects triggered an exodus of health care workers. Those who stayed are demanding more from health systems that claim to be reaching their own breaking points.

  • “The pandemic exacerbated a crisis that was already there,” Michelle Boyle, a Pittsburgh nurse told Axios. “It went from being a crisis to being a catastrophic freefall in staffing.”

Driving the news: About 1,400 resident physicians in public Los Angeles County hospitals have authorized a strike if their demands for pay parity with other local facilities aren’t met in contract negotiations this week.

  • Nurses demonstrated across Pennsylvania in early May, protesting one state lawmaker’s inaction on legislation that would have set nurse-to-patient ratios.
  • A fight is brewing in Minnesota as contracts covering 15,000 nurses in several hospital systems are expiring.
  • Some 2,000 resident physicians and interns at Stanford University and the University of Vermont Medical Center joined an affiliate of the SEIU for medical workers that claims more than 20,000 members nationwide.
  • In North Carolina, where union membership is low, staff at Mission Health in Asheville voted to unionize largely over staffing concerns.

Less than half of the of nearly 12,000 nurses polled by the American Nurses Association last year believe their employer cares about their concerns, and 52% of those surveyed said they intend to leave their jobs or are considering doing so.

The other side: Hospital operators generally oppose unionization efforts, as well as mandated staffing ratios.

  • “The last thing we need is requirements set by somebody in Washington as to exactly how many nurses ought to be providing service at any given time,” said Chip Kahn, CEO of the Federation of American Hospitals. “That ought to be a local decision based on the need in the hospital at the time.”
  • The American Organization for Nursing Leadership, an affiliate of the American Hospital Association, also opposes staffing ratios.
  • The industry says decisions on staffing and workplace rules are best left to local executives who need to be flexible to meet shifting demand for care.
  • “You’re basically taking away the flexibility of those on the scene to determine what it takes to provide the needed patient care,” Kahn said.

Go deeper: The pandemic drove up labor costs significantly for hospitals that were forced to pay travel nurses to fill workforce gaps during COVID surges.

  • April marked the fourth month in a row this year that major hospitals and health care systems reported negative margins, a Kaufman Hall report found. And executives say things could worsen amid inflation and stubborn supply chain woes.

And yet, some big hospital chains like Tenet reported strong earnings in the first quarter.

Between the lines: California is the only state to have set staffing ratios for nurses, but hospital unions in other states have fought for similar requirements in their contracts.

  • In California, every nurse on a general hospital floor has no more than five patients to care for at a time; nurses in ICUs should care for no more than two patients.
  • Nurses want look-alike standards in states like Pennsylvania, where only some hospitals have staffing ratios, saying short-staffing threatens patients’ well-being.

What we’re watching: While many legislative proposals failed this year, unions representing health care workers say their message is getting across.

  • Unions in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Washington state are redoubling efforts for staffing ratio legislation modeled on California’s.
  • In New York, nurses passed a law that took effect in January mandating staffing committees at hospitals.

The bottom line: The labor tension is a sobering coda to a health crisis that’s stretched health systems and workers alike in unprecedented ways.

“What you’re seeing is nurses finally saying enough is enough and this system is broken and we need it to be fixed,” said Denelle Korin, a nurse alliance coordinator with Nurses of Pennsylvania.

Strike set to begin at Cedars-Sinai

Members of the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West are set to begin a weeklong strike May 9 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

The union represents about 2,000 certified nursing assistants, surgical technicians, sterile processing technicians, transporters, environmental service workers, plant operation workers and food service technicians, according to NBC Los Angeles. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center has about 14,000 employees total.

Union members voted to authorize a strike in April. The union and hospital began negotiating a new labor contract March 21, according to NBC Los Angeles. A hospital spokesperson told the local news outlet that upon the start of negotiations, “Cedars-Sinai presented a strong economic proposal that would have continued our market leading pay by providing substantial pay increases to bargaining unit employees as early as March 27.”

The union contends that in its latest round of bargaining, Cedars-Sinai rejected proposals on PPE stockpiles, COVID-19 exposure notifications, keeping pregnant and immunocompromised workers away from COVID-19 patients and other safety measures. “We’re asking for basic workplace protections and respect for the lives and health of caregivers and patients,” an SEIU-UHW statement reads. 

“We respect the rights of SEIU-UHW members to take this step,” the hospital said in a statement. “The most effective way to reach a fair agreement, however, is for both parties to stay at the bargaining table and finish negotiations.”

Stanford physicians vote to join union

Resident and fellow physicians at Palo Alto, Calif.-based Stanford Health Care have voted in favor of representation by the Committee of Interns and Residents, according to a May 3 news release.

Of the nearly 1,050 ballots counted, 835 were in favor of representation, the National Labor Relations Board website showed. 

The vote comes after resident physicians led a protest in December 2020 against Stanford’s COVID-19 vaccination plan that excluded house staff from the initial round of shots. The health system immediately revised the plan to prioritize resident physicians.

In February, physicians also demanded the health system voluntarily recognize the Committee of Interns and Residents as their exclusive representative for collective bargaining.

Now the union said its members are looking forward to negotiations. 

“Our doctors are united by our desire to provide the best possible patient care and strong worker protections,” said Ben Solomon, MD, a pediatric resident physician, said in the release. “One thing the pandemic has made abundantly clear, in addition to the widespread equity issues in our healthcare system, is that our needs as physicians cannot be separated from those of our patients.”

The National Labor Relations Board must certify the election results before they are final. Stanford does not plan to challenge the results, the health system said in a statement shared with Becker’s on May 3.

“As we begin the collective bargaining process, our goal remains unchanged: providing our residents and fellows with a world-class training experience,” Stanford said. “We will bring this same focus to negotiations as we strive to support their development as physician leaders.”

The Committee of Interns and Residents is a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union. The union represents more than 20,000 resident physicians and fellows, including University of Massachusetts physicians in training, who unionized in March 2021. 

Stanford Health Care to nurses: No pay for those who strike

Stanford Health Care and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital administrators have notified union leaders that its nurse members who strike later in April risk losing pay and health benefits, according to Palo Alto Weekly.

The Committee for Recognition of Nursing Achievement, a union at Stanford Health Care and Stanford Children’s Health that represents about 5,000 nurses, has scheduled a strike to begin April 25. The nurses’ contract expired March 31.

If the strike moves forward, Stanford Health Care and the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, both based in Palo Alto, Calif., are prepared to continue to provide safe, quality healthcare, according to a statement from Dale Beatty, DNP, RN, chief nurse executive and vice president of patient care services for Stanford Health Care, and Jesus Cepero, PhD, RN, senior vice president of patient care and chief nursing officer for Stanford Children’s Health.

But the statement, which was shared with Becker’s, said nurses who choose to strike will not be paid for shifts they miss.

“In addition, employer-paid health benefits will cease on May 1 for nurses who go out on strike and remain out through the end of the month in which the strike begins,” Drs. Beatty and Cepero said.

The leaders quoted from Committee for Recognition of Nursing Achievement’s “contingency manual” that the union provided to nurses: “If a strike lasts beyond the end of the month in which it begins and the hospitals discontinue medical coverage, you will have the option to pay for continued coverage.”

Drs. Beatty and Cepero said nurses who strike may pay to continue their health coverage through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act.

In a separate statement shared with Becker’s, Committee for Recognition of Nursing Achievement President Colleen Borges called Stanford and Packard management’s move regarding nurses’ health benefits “cruel” and “immoral.”

“Health benefits should not be used against workers, especially against the very healthcare professionals who have made Stanford a world-class health system,” said Ms. Borges, who is also a pediatric oncology nurse at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. “We have spent our careers caring for others and putting others first — now more than ever we need solutions that will ensure sustainability, safe staffing and strong benefits to retain nurses. But instead of taking our proposals seriously, hospitals are spending their time and energy weaponizing our medical benefits. We refuse to be intimidated from standing up for the fair contracts that we need in order to continue delivering world-class patient care.”

The union has organized a petition to tell Stanford not to cut off medical benefits for nurses and their families during the strike. As of April 19, the petition had more than 25,150 signatures.

Sutter Health: Nurses who staged 1-day strike must wait 5 days to return to work

Sacramento-based Sutter Health said nurses who went on strike April 18 will not be allowed to return to work until the morning of April 23, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The strike affected nurses and healthcare workers at Sutter Health facilities in Northern California. The nurses are members of the California Nurses Association, and the other workers are members of the Caregivers and Healthcare Employees Union, an affiliate of the California Nurses Association.

More than 8,000 registered nurses and healthcare workers were expected to participate in the strike, according to an April 18 news release from the unions.

In a statement shared with Becker’s, Sutter Health said the organization conducted strike contingency planning, which included “securing staff to replace nurses who have chosen to strike, and those replacement contracts provide the assurance of five days of guaranteed staffing amid the uncertainty of a widespread work stoppage.” 

“As always, our top priority remains safe, high-quality patient care and nurses may be reinstated sooner based on operational and patient care needs,” the statement said.

The California Nurses Association described Sutter Health’s decision as retaliatory, as well as “completely unnecessary and vindictive.”

“Nurses who are regularly scheduled to work during this lockout period will lose those days of pay,” the union said in a statement shared with Becker’s. “We urge Sutter to respect the nurses’ strike and let all nurses return to work.”

Sutter Health workers authorized a strike in March, and union officials announced an official strike notice April 8. Union members cited lack of transparency about the stockpile of personal protective equipment supplies and contact tracing as a reason for the strike. They also said they seek a contract that will help retain experienced nurses and provide sufficient staffing and training.

Nurses have been in contract negotiations since June. 

More than 4K Stanford nurses vote to strike in California

UPDATE: April 14, 2022: Nurses will begin striking April 25 if they are unable to reach a deal with the system by then, according to a Wednesday statement from the union. The two sides have met with a federal mediator three times, and the strike would be open-ended.

Dive Brief:

  • Unionized nurses at Stanford hospitals in California voted in favor of authorizing a strike Thursday, meaning more than 4,500 nurses could walk off the job in a bid for better staffing, wages and mental health measures in new contracts.
  • Some 93% of nurses represented by the Committee for Recognition of Nursing Achievement voted in favor of the work stoppage, though the union did not set a date, according to a union release. It must give the hospitals 10 days notice before going on strike.
  • Nurses’ contracts expired March 31 and the union and hospital have engaged in more than 30 bargaining sessions over the past three months, including with a federal mediator, according to the union.

Dive Insight:

As the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened working conditions for nurses, some unions have made negotiating contracts a priority. Better staffing is key, along with higher wages and other benefits to help attract and retain employees amid ongoing shortages.

The California nurses’ demands in new contracts focus heavily on recruitment and retention of nursing staff “amid an industry-wide shortage and nurses being exhausted after working through the pandemic, many in short-staffed units,” the union said in the release.

They’re also asking for improved access to time off and more mental health support.

Nurses say their working conditions are becoming untenable and relying on travel staff and overtime shifts is not sustainable, according to the release.

The hospitals are taking precautionary steps to prepare for a potential strike and will resume negotiations with the union and a federal mediator Tuesday, according to a statement from Stanford.

But according to CRONA, nurses have filed significantly more assignment despite objections documents from 2020 to 2021 — forms that notify hospital supervisors of assignments nurses take despite personal objections around lacking resources, training or staff.

And a survey of CRONA nurses conducted in November 2021 founds that as many as 45% were considering quitting their jobs, according to the union.

That’s in line with other national surveys, including one from staffing firm Incredible Health released in March that found more than a third of nurses said they plan to leave their current jobs by the end of this year.

The CRONA nurses “readiness to strike demonstrates the urgency of the great professional and personal crisis they are facing and the solutions they are demanding from hospital executives,” the union said in the release.

No major strikes among healthcare workers have occurred so far this year, though several happened in 2021 and in 2020, the first year of the pandemic.

Stanford, Packard nurses greenlight strike

Thousands of nurses at Stanford and Lucile Packard Children’s hospitals in Palo Alto, Calif., have authorized the union representing them to call a strike. 

In an April 8 news release, the Committee for Recognition of Nursing Achievement said more than 4,500 nurses at Stanford and Packard, or 93 percent of all nurses eligible, voted in favor of strike authorization. They are calling on hospital management to adequately address staffing, citing consistent overtime and nurses’ complaints of inadequate resources, training or staff. They also seek improved access to mental health counseling, as well as competitive wages and benefits.

“The decision by members to overwhelmingly authorize a strike shows that we are fed up with the status quo of working conditions at the hospitals,” Colleen Borges, union president and a nurse in the pediatric oncology department, said in the release. “We need contracts that allow us to care for ourselves and our families so we can continue providing world-class care.”

Nurses authorized the strike after bargaining for the last 13 weeks and are working without contracts. The vote does not mean a strike will occur, but it gives the union the ability to issue an official strike notice. 

In a statement shared with Becker’s, Stanford expressed its support for negotiations rather than a strike.

“We are committed, through good faith bargaining, to reach agreement on new contracts that provide nurses a highly competitive compensation package, along with proposals that further our commitment to enhancing staffing and wellness benefits for nurses,” the statement said.

The hospital also said it is taking the steps to prepare for the possibility of a strike, while hoping a strike is averted.

“Given the progress we have made by working constructively with the union, we should be able to reach agreements that will allow us to continue to attract and retain the high caliber of nurses who so meaningfully contribute to our hospitals’ reputation for excellence,” the statement read. 

Kaiser Permanente averts strike in tentative deal with health care workers

Kaiser Permanente security guards monitor an informational picket outside of the Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center on November 10, 2021 in San Francisco, California.

Union leaders representing nearly 50,000 health care workers and medical staff reached a tentative agreement in a labor dispute Saturday, avoiding a strike set to begin Monday.

Why it matters: The breakthrough in talks comes as nurses, front-line technicians and other hospital employees face worker shortages and burnout due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The big picture: More than 30,000 Kaiser Permanente employees in Oregon, Washington, California and other states threatened to walk out on Monday over lower pay for new hires, Reuters reports.

  • Kaiser and the Alliance of Health Care Unions ended up reaching a tentative four-year deal that includes wage increases, health and retirement benefits and bonus opportunities, per CBS News.

What they’re saying: “This agreement will mean patients will continue to receive the best care, and Alliance members will have the best jobs,” Hal Ruddick, executive director of Alliance, said in the statement.

  • “This landmark agreement positions Kaiser Permanente for a successful future focused on providing high-quality health care that is affordable and accessible for our more than 12 million members and the communities we serve,” said Christian Meisner, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Kaiser.

What’s next: The agreement heads to union members for ratification, and, if ratified, it will become retroactive to Oct. 1.

UPMC workers to strike Nov. 18

Workers at Pittsburgh-based UPMC plan to strike over wages and benefits, the Post-Gazette reported Nov. 5. 

Service Employees International Union Healthcare Pennsylvania, which does not represent the workers but is supporting them, told Becker’s Hospital Review the strike would involve workers at UPMC hospitals in Pittsburgh, including transporters, dietary workers, housekeepers, nurses, patient care techs, medical assistants, pharmacy techs, surgical techs, valets, therapists, health unit coordinators and administrative assistants. Workers plan to strike for one day on Nov. 18.

The workers are demanding a $20 per hour minimum wage, affordable high-quality healthcare, elimination of all medical debt and respect for union rights, according to a union news release.

Their strike notice came after UPMC announced Nov. 2 that the health system is giving 92,000 staff members a bonus of $500 to thank them for their work during the pandemic. UPMC will issue the bonuses on Nov. 26. The health system also announced improvements to employee compensation and benefit programs, including raising the entry level wage to $15.75 in January, according to the Post-Gazette

“There was no ‘thank you pay’ until we started organizing to strike,” Juilia Centofanti, pharmacy tech at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, said in a news release.

Ms. Centofanti added that employees are “owed this [$20 per hour wage] and so much more,” and said she “will continue organizing with my co-workers for the pay, safer staffing and union rights we deserve.”

In announcing the bonuses, Leslie Davis, president and CEO of UPMC, told workers, “Over the past 20 months, you have risen in truly exceptional ways to meet challenges we could have never anticipated. With your critical support, UPMC continues to care for so many.”

A UPMC spokesperson declined to comment to Becker’s on Nov. 5.

UPMC is a $23 billion healthcare provider and insurer. SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania has been trying to organize about 3,500 hourly workers at UPMC Presbyterian and Shadyside hospitals for nearly a decade, but has not yet held a unionization vote, according to the Post-Gazette.

Read the full report here.

Possible strike looms for 28,000 Kaiser workers in Southern California

80,000 Kaiser Permanente workers to strike nationwide in October | Fox  Business

Nurses and other healthcare workers have voted to authorize a strike at Kaiser Permanente in Southern California, according to a union news release.

The vote covers 21,000 registered nurses, pharmacists, midwives, physical therapists and other healthcare professionals represented by the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, as well as 7,000 members of United Steelworkers. It does not mean a strike is scheduled. However, it gives bargaining teams the option of calling a strike. Unions representing the workers would have to provide a 10-day notice before striking.

The vote comes as Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser is negotiating for a national contract with UNAC/UHCP, along with about 20 other unions in the Alliance of Health Care Unions. The alliance, which has been in negotiations with Kaiser since April, covers more than 50,000 Kaiser workers nationwide.

UNAC/UHCP said union members are facing “protracted understaffing” amid record levels of burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While healthcare workers are facing record levels of burnout after 18 months of the COVID pandemic, they continue to deal with protracted understaffing. Talks at the table center on how to recruit to fill open positions that impact patient care and service,” the union said in a news release. “Kaiser Permanente … wants to slash wages for new nurses and healthcare workers and depress wages for current workers trying to keep up with rising costs for food, housing and other essentials.”

Kaiser has defended its pay amid a challenging pandemic, saying its proposal includes wage increases for current employees “on top of the already market-leading pay and benefits,” as well as a market-based compensation structure for those hired in 2023 and beyond.

In a statement shared with Becker’s Oct. 11, the system also emphasized its continued focus on high-quality, safe care.

“In the event of any kind of work stoppage, our facilities will be staffed by our physicians along with trained and experienced managers and contingency staff,” the system said. 

This strike would affect Kaiser hospitals and medical centers in Anaheim, Bakersfield, Baldwin Park, Downey, Fontana, Irvine, Los Angeles, Ontario Vineyard, Panorama City, Riverside, San Diego, West Los Angeles and Woodland Hills, as well as various clinics and medical office buildings in Southern California.