Where We Stand: Real Solutions: We're Fighting for—and Winning—Safe Staffing

American healthcare has become a “medical-industrial complex,” raking in billions a year by denying needed medical care, overcharging patients (especially those without insurance), and reducing staff to dangerous levels. Patient care is increasingly controlled by hospital monopolies (some backed by private equity), along with insurance and pharmaceutical companies. We’re up against corporatizers and extremists who won’t support safe staffing, healthcare for all, or even reducing prescription drug costs for Medicare.

Understaffing is a dire problem. A 2022 survey by New Jersey’s Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE) found that 95 percent of nurses with five years’ experience or less wanted to leave the bedside, due largely to the stress of understaffing.

Enough is enough.

In February 2023, the AFT and our affiliates launched the Code Red campaign, a nationwide initiative to secure safe staffing levels and other crucial protections—such as workplace violence prevention—for patients and clinicians. More than 100 AFT affiliates have jumped into this campaign to offer real solutions to fix our broken healthcare system. The contrast between the profiteers and the problem solvers couldn’t be clearer.

While hospitals work clinicians to the bone, and understaffing and endless overtime endanger patients, we’re working to pass safe staffing legislation and curb mandatory overtime. In this issue, you’ll read about the amazing victories our affiliates in Connecticut (here), Oregon (here), and Washington (here) have already achieved. All three have new laws that give healthcare workers a strong voice in staffing—and our affiliates are already figuring out how to ensure employers follow those laws.

When they drive people away from the profession, we help them stay. The New York State Public Employees Federation’s Code Red campaign (see here) focuses on healing the healers. Their retention plan includes the impressive salary gains, professional development bonuses, and improved paid parental leave they’ve already won, plus new preceptor and mentoring programs.

While they deploy an army of healthcare lobbyists, we’re urging legislators to protect patients. Healthcare lobbyist spending has skyrocketed: $713.6 million in 2020 alone. So our unions are showing legislators that reform is a make-or-break issue. HPAE has long worked to pass nurse staffing standards for hospitals and ambulatory surgery facilities. Now, as every seat in the state legislature is up this year, the union is endorsing only candidates who pledge to support safe staffing legislation (see here).

While hospitals evade staffing reforms, we hold them accountable. Washington State Nurses Association members found that hospital management made a sham of state-mandated staffing committees. The union mobilized thousands of members and, in April 2023, won a new staffing law in which CEOs no longer have veto power on staffing plans, staffing committees are 50 percent union-represented workers, and state agencies will have the power to force noncompliant hospitals to close down units or implement staffing ratios (see here).

When they try to silence healthcare professionals, we organize and empower them. While hospitals have a long history of union busting, it’s not working. The AFT has organized 28 new healthcare unions so far this year, with more than 5,000 members nationwide in a range of professions, from imaging technicians to resident physicians. Our Oregon affiliates alone organized over 1,000 new members in the last year. And AFT locals are using the power of collective bargaining alongside legislative advocacy. For example, nurses at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center have bargained some of the strongest staffing provisions in the country. Now they’re pushing for mid-contract improvements, including additional protections from workplace violence, like metal detectors and more security personnel (see here).

One reason our Code Red campaigns are succeeding is that we are working in coalition with other unions, patient advocates, and our communities. Please keep reaching out to your colleagues and communities to engage people on these issues and urge them to support elected leaders and candidates who will choose patients—and the people who care for them—over profits.

It’s time for all of us to show where we stand. At the AFT, we stand for a better life for all. Better healthcare outcomes. Better access to good jobs with decent wages. Better opportunities for our kids. We stand for real solutions that mandate safe staffing and, ultimately, heal our healers. Real solutions for kids and communities.

[photo: Alex Palombo]

AFT Health Care, Fall 2023