May 6 is National Nurses Day, the perfect time to celebrate our UAW nurses throughout the country and raise awareness about the importance of nursing. This week, Local 2213 in UAW Region 2B sponsored a conference and rally in Washington, D.C. called “Nurses Take DC” which brought together 400 union and non-union nurses to discuss various topics affecting the nursing profession including patient safety, limited resources, ineffective management, and staffing ratios.
Nursing has become a target of escalating, corporate-driven cutbacks across America. U.S. hospitals are devaluing the vital importance of nurses because, unlike some other hospital employees, the services nurses provide to patients don’t generate income. But within hospitals, nurses are the face of the facility and the main care provider for not only the patients, but their families as well. Nurses also act as the liaison between the patient and the doctors and other healthcare workers.
UAW Nurses from Local 2213 want to change the way nurses are treated everywhere. To do that, they are organizing, sharing information with other nurses, and coming up with strategies to bring about positive changes to the industry through policy and legislation. They are also investigating ways of making the voices of nursing professionals stronger within their workplaces.
No one wants to come to a hospital either as a patient or visitor and experience a nurse that is burnt out from caring for too many patients. We want our nurses to be sharp, mindful, and responsive to every detail when our health and life is on the line. We never want a nurse to make a mistake because they’re too rushed or too tired. However, hospital administrators are sometimes more attentive to the bottom line than patients’ needs.
For nurses at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio, having a union and being part of the UAW has helped give voice to nurses who may otherwise feel left alone with their concerns.
“Through union contracts, we made processes where we have meetings to discuss things. For example, in our last contract, to cut down on being short-staffed when nurses call off leaving the other nurses short-staffed, we now offer premium pay to cut down on these call-in issues,” said Susan Pratt, UAW Local 2213 president and unit chair who works in Staff Development.
“We have a duty to take care of patients, so we created incentives to help bring in nurses who are off-duty to fill in. We offer double time plus nine dollars an hour if the nurse is full-time and if they’re part-time, they get time and a half plus nine dollars an hour.” Pratt added, “So it was an incentive to get people to want to come in without the other nurses having to work short-staffed.”
Nurses are the biggest health care providers in this country. We’re the largest group, but it seems like our voices aren’t always heard the way they should be.
Mary Arvay is a registered nurse working in the Recovery Unit and saw the changes that came to the hospital after workers formed a union there in 1999.
“Prior to having a union, we could work twelve hours but the hospital could choose to freeze us and make us stay another eight hours. That created an increase of nurses who were too exhausted to perform up the level of quality the patients deserved,” she said.
“We also have to have some way to protect our nursing license and don’t want to ever make a mistake that would jeopardize that. Hospitals that aren’t unionized don’t have those kinds of protections. They don’t have a forum to complain and be heard to create change in the workplace. Having a voice is priceless,” Arvay added.
Tony Sopko works in Emergency and sees nursing from the point of view of the nurses and the administrators.
“I think being a nurse is a great privilege to be the eyes and ears of the doctor,” he said. , “One of the downsides, though, is often in healthcare, nurses are seen as an expense. They don’t see us as being an income for the hospital. When it comes to healthcare billing, they don’t bill for nursing. We are included in a room charge or a service charge. It’s almost like we’re not there.”
“But we are with a patient on what, for some, is the worst day of their life. We’re the ones at the bedside noticing any changes and doing what we have to do to keep that patient healthy and safe. So it’s hard when you’re trying to be a patient advocate and you’re seen that way by the hospitals,” he continued. “Nurses are the biggest health care providers in this country. We’re the largest group, but it seems like our voices aren’t always heard the way they should be.”
Despite nurses spending the more time with a patient than a doctor or any other staff within the hospital, they are often invisible when it comes to billing. As a result, when hospitals look at the bottom line to cut costs, they see room charges and service charges as generic categories from which to cut, resulting in fewer resources and fewer nurses.
But, having a nurse is critical for patients. Nurses constantly make assessments throughout their shift and monitor the status of the patients under their care. When they see something unusual, they’re the ones troubleshooting and using critical thinking and intuition to diagnose the situation and determine if more care or a doctor is needed.
Because nurses work so closely with patients, they are best positioned to be patient advocates. Their closeness with patients also means nurses provide an indispensable voice and vantage point in the health care reform debate. That is why nurses from Local 2213 are so active in the nursing community and in the capitol. UAW nurses are fighting to bring a better understanding of what policy changes are necessary to ensure that patients are given better care in all hospitals, not just some.
“I love my job and I’m so proud to be part of the UAW,” said Liz Harris, registered nurse from the postpartum unit. “I work with new moms after they give birth and it’s wonderful and emotional.” But the emotional element isn’t always a positive experience.
“As nurses, we sometimes take our work home with us because we do care so much about our patients. When I was working while still in school, I was in pediatrics and we had a patient pass. I couldn’t stop crying and I wanted to quit. My instructor said, ‘Liz, one day you’re going to stop crying when a patient dies. But the day you stop caring when a patient dies is the day is the day you need to stop being a nurse.’ And that advice has resonated with me over my seven years as a nurse. We are human. We care about our patients.”
No matter when your day comes that you visit someone in a hospital or you’re a patient yourself, being protected by a nurse who has the proper amount of time to spend in the room to fully answer all your questions or assess your condition as it changes throughout the day is a level of care that everyone deserves. A patient’s care shouldn’t be impacted by monetary cutbacks or by worn out nurses who aren’t attentive enough to perform their jobs safely.
Fortunately for the patients at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center, their nurses have an advantage that a non-union hospital doesn’t have – a voice to speak up for their patients and themselves.
“It is an honor that people let me in their lives. We’re there to see newborns brought into this world and share the joy of the birth with the parents,” said Susan Pratt. “It’s an equal honor to care for a patient who is dying when we can bring them comfort by holding their hand or praying with them and their families. Our patients are like family. From the time they enter our care, we think of them as family and see ourselves in their positions. But we have to be allowed to have the tools and do the job well.”
Pratt continued, “We created a grid that we’re asking to be implemented on a national or state level. We want to standardize the patient to nurses ratios where, if you have, say, fifteen patients, you would need to have three nurses. We want that to be standardized based on research that is out there. This is the ratio that is established in California. Under our proposal, If a facility didn’t meet the patient to nurse ratio, they would get a $25,000 fine, just like they currently do in California. That would give hospitals an incentive to make sure nurses aren’t too burnt out to give better care.”
On Friday, May 12, join the nurses from the UAW as they come together for the Nurses Rally for Safe Staffing Levels outside the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio from 2-4 p.m. and let the people we elected to make legislation and policy know that Senate Bill 55, which would establish a minimum nurse-to-patient ratio for every hospital unit in Ohio, should be approved.