Nurses unite against unsafe staffing

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Theresa Klenk has spent more than 25 years in nursing, and during that time staffing concerns have gone from bad to worse. That's why she traveled to Washington, D.C., with nearly 100 nurses represented by the Health Professionals and Allied Employees in New Jersey to attend the Nurses Take DC rally on April 26.

Klenk was excited about the idea of hundreds of nurses coming together to raise their voices against a long-standing problem for nurses: unsafe staffing.

Nurses rally in DC

"Nurses have figured out a way to speak up, and it’s through rallies like this," says Klenk. "It’s a feeling of empowerment to use our collective voices. We are standing up for two reasons: patient safety and protecting the profession."

This is the third year Nurses Take DC has gone to Washington. The grass-roots movement was started in 2016 by a group of nurses who wanted to take a stand for safer staffing in the hospitals and facilities where nurses work by raising awareness of the issue with the public.

Klenk attended the rally because she wants to advocate for patient safety. "When we are on duty, we are not able to say to patients: We are not staffed appropriately. And because we can’t say it, patients are under the impression that it's our problem," she says. "We need to educate the public. Nursing is one of the most respected professions, and every nurse has a story about unsafe staffing. Unfortunately, the public has no idea about what goes on in hospitals and, truthfully, neither do our lawmakers."

Although hundreds of nurses gathered outside the Capitol, many of them were also on the inside lobbying lawmakers to support the Nurse Staffing Standards for Hospital Patient Safety and Quality Care Act, the safe staffing bill that has been introduced in both chambers of Congress this year.

Charlotte Crowe, a registered nurse and HPAE member, says it's time to change the narrative when it comes to safe staffing. "I think we have to stop focusing on the nurses. The focus needs to be on what the patients are going through. The fight can’t be about nurse workload, it's about patient safety."

"I had a long list of all the impacts of poor staffing to share with you, but you already know that," HPAE President Ann Twomey told the crowd. "From the minute you get your license and go to work, the first thing you realize is that there isn't enough staff. Safe staffing is the number one issue for everyone standing here," said Twomey, who is an AFT vice president. "We need a unified approach to achieving safe staffing levels. The group that has put this together is growing every year. We know what we have to do; if we pull together, we can really make a difference."

The nurses in attendance understand that there is power in their numbers. HPAE member Melody Schantz has been a nurse for 10 years; she says she went to Washington "to show people that we—as nurses—are a force. A lot of nurses don’t realize they should make their voices heard on this issue," she says, adding that "if we are short staffed, we can’t do all we need to do." She noted that some days nurses can’t give the kind of care they would like to give or what they thought they would give when they entered the profession.

Nurses rally in DC

"As nurses, we are trained to care for patients; I never thought about the policy behind the number of patients I cared for, but my thinking was really flawed," says Jalil Johnson, a registered nurse and one of the event’s organizers. "We have to see our place in the bigger picture."

Johnson compares the nurses' movement to a snowball rolling down a hill. "It starts small and picks up more speed and grows." To keep up the momentum, he encouraged everyone in the crowd to get their nurse colleagues involved. "Go home and grab one nurse and pull them into this movement. Once we reach a critical mass, [legislators] won't be able to ignore us."

[Adrienne Coles]