Nurses and health professionals have always envisioned a healthcare system that puts the patient first, but over the years, the industry has become more focused on the pursuit of profit. AFT President Randi Weingarten was joined by a panel of health professionals on July 15 to discuss how unions can create a healthcare system that prioritizes patient care and worker safety over corporate profits.
January Belcher, a registered nurse at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Joel Hernandez, a registered nurse at St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, Ore., and John Brady, a registered nurse and the executive vice president of AFT Connecticut, discussed their perspectives on issues such as retention, the professional pipeline, working conditions, fatigue, workplace violence and staffing.
The COVID-19 pandemic was extraordinarily hard on healthcare workers. Although many were able to ride it out, others decided to leave the profession—especially those with decades of experience. Many of our AFT affiliates fought to keep experienced workers at the bedside.
Belcher believes that healthcare leaders must recognize the value of experienced nurses and health professionals, particularly in terms of retention. “Schools can teach you so much,” Belcher explained, but the lessons learned from bedside care are invaluable because they are not found in textbooks.
Hernandez also expressed the need for healthcare systems to invest in supporting newer nurses and health professionals with mentors, education and mental health resources. When it comes to working conditions, staffing has a significant impact on the incidence of workplace violence, worker fatigue and mental health problems. The AFT has worked with members to lobby for change in Congress and with federal agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Workers have attempted to address staffing issues by requesting safe ratios and/or staffing committees, but Brady claims that these solutions do not work in isolation. “We need both [ratios and committees] and more,” he said. It’s also important to trust nurses and health professionals to speak up when they don’t feel safe taking on a patient because they already have too many patients, an assignment isn’t in their area of expertise or they don’t have enough experience, according to Brady.
Weingarten pointed out that healthcare workers are subject to violence on the job every day. She asked the panelists how they deal with violence at work. Hernandez wants hospital administrators to be more accountable. When healthcare workers are assaulted, he finds it insulting that administrators ask what they could have done differently to prevent the violence. “We need laws that say that assaulting a healthcare worker is a felony,” he added.
In recent years, the AFT has partnered with organizations to address burnout and moral injury. Knowing how severe these problems have become during the pandemic, Weingarten asked the panelists what they do to deal with the pressures of working in healthcare facilities.
Belcher said that she often takes time for herself, noting that “you have to take care of you in order to be able to take care of somebody else.”
In the face of constant understaffing and berating by administrators, Hernandez said he devotes time to fighting for his co-workers to make their jobs easier. Although Brady is no longer at the bedside, he draws energy from members and from unions’ wins against healthcare corporations.
[Adrienne Coles/photo by Michael Campbell]