AFT campaign addresses staffing shortages that pose significant risk to patient care

On Feb. 24, the AFT launched a nationwide campaign to draw attention to and address the country's healthcare staffing crisis, which is putting patients at risk. “Code Red: Understaffing = Patient Care Crisis” is a $1 million multifaceted, multiyear campaign involving over 100 AFT affiliates who will focus on the issue of inadequate staffing and hold healthcare corporations and the government accountable through education, outreach, advocacy, contract bargaining and legislation.

Healthcare worker at laptop

“We’re calling a code red. Every day, healthcare professionals and the patients they care for are suffering—as corporate employers undermine them and downplay the very real crisis while raking in record profits,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten.

“Understaffing is the core problem, which leads to the erosion of patient care, heavier workloads, mandatory overtime, constant fatigue, injuries and skyrocketing rates of violence. This is not new, but COVID-19 has put us at a breaking point. It’s time to stop healthcare corporations from ignoring this crisis or papering it over with billboards that ‘thank’ our healthcare heroes but fail to help them. The time to act is now.”

Unsafe staffing levels in hospitals have long been a concern for healthcare professionals, patients and their families. The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the importance of adequate hospital staffing. Nurses and other health professionals have been on the frontlines of the pandemic response, working long hours and facing high levels of stress and burnout. Medical errors, longer hospital stays, and even patient deaths can be brought on by overworked nurses and other health professionals. As a result, several states and Congress are considering legislation to address this issue.

The “Code Red” campaign was kicked off in Oregon, where two AFT affiliates—the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals and the Oregon Nurses Association—are pushing for the passage of Oregon House Bill 2697 to enshrine safe staffing standards.

“Part of what we need are bills like what we see in Oregon ... to change staffing and to make sure that there are clear and enforceable staffing ratios that need to be abided by,” said Weingarten during a virtual press conference. She was joined by Oregon state Reps. Travis Nelson and Rob Nosse, co-sponsors of the legislation. “I’ve been a registered nurse for nearly 20 years,” said Nelson, “and I know what it’s like to be burned out and not get breaks or not to get vacations and to have to deal with awful staffing; and it absolutely stinks,” he added. “It's part of the reason I left the bedside nearly 10 years ago; if we pass this bill, we will see a lot of nurses who are sitting on the sidelines come back.” 

“We need desperately for nurses to stay and be working at the bedside,” said Nosse, who acknowledged that the staffing shortage is not just a problem that’s peculiar to Oregon. “We’re taking action to put protection in place for these critical workers. These problems are only going to get worse unless we put statutory protections in place.” 

“This bill is a massive step forward for our state to make Oregon hospitals safer,” said OFNHP President Jonathan Baker. 

“We are thankful to Rob and Travis for advancing this bill,” said Weingarten. She also noted that the union is working with more than 100 healthcare locals that are seeking to address staffing policy through collective bargaining. Staffing ratio language has been negotiated at several sites, including Ohio State University and Kaiser Permanente and in agreements at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, NYU Langone Health and NYU Lutheran Medical Center in New York City.

The campaign actualizes the recommendations of the AFT’s landmark “Healthcare Staffing Shortage Task Force Report, released in November 2022, which found nurses and other healthcare professionals are exhausted, burned out, anxious and leaving the profession in droves.

“We have the chance to make a change for the better and to set the stage for similar changes across the country," said Tamie Cline, a registered nurse and president of the Oregon Nurses Association, in referring to the AFT’s new campaign.

[Adrienne Coles]