‘Something Must Change’: New Jersey Nurses Strike for Safe Staffing
I am one of 1,700 nurses on strike at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey. We are members of United Steel Workers Local 4-200.
The hospital administration has used intimidation, scare tactics, and lies to convince the public that patient care is at the top of their priority list and at the bottom of ours. We have had enough.
We are on day 20 of our strike, and nurses are beginning to feel the pressure. Our health insurance ends at the end of this month, and the financial strains of supporting our families on unemployment are growing.
We are standing outside of the hospital day and night to show our dedication to achieving a fair contract that benefits us and, most importantly, our patients.
We are striking to demand safe staffing ratios, better retirement benefits, lower insurance cap percentages, and wage increases to reflect the demands of working at a short-staffed Level 1 Trauma Center.
AN AVERAGE DAY
I recall one shift that reflects what an average day looks like for a bedside nurse:
I have a six-patient assignment, again. One of my elderly patients, confused from a urinary tract infection, repeatedly tries getting out of bed, putting them at risk of falling.
The bed alarm is blaring… while I am in another room with another patient, newly admitted from the cardiac catheterization lab, who has suffered a cardiac arrest. The protocol is that this patient has their vital signs taken every 15 minutes—but there are no technicians available for me to ask.
In another room, a patient’s hemoglobin is dangerously low, and I need to administer a STAT unit of blood while monitoring them for the first 15 minutes to ensure they don’t have an adverse reaction.
Another patient has Covid, and their oxygen saturation is dropping while they are maxed out on oxygen. The next step is an intubation and transfer to the intensive care unit.
Another patient has lab work that must be drawn because they are on a heparin drip that can potentially thin their blood to dangerous levels if not monitored in a timely fashion.
And the sixth patient is irritable because they want their discharge paperwork so that they can finally leave the hospital. They are consistently ringing the call bell for my attention—but I cannot find the time.
During this 12-hour shift, I did not have a moment to eat, use the restroom, or complete any charting. We do not have extra help because every other nurse and tech is inundated with their own assignments.
This was the norm, every day, without fail. After one year, I could not take it anymore and left the bedside, transferring to work in the operating room instead. We need help. Something must change.
Negotiations have been ongoing, yet unsuccessful, since April.
The first contract proposal was voted down by a staggering 96 percent of members. This is because the proposal had no action plan to safely staffed units based on acuity (how sick patients are). In fact, the proposal omitted a staffing ratio altogether. Nurses refused to accept an offer that prioritized profits over our patients.
Hospital administrators persistently attempt to paint us as money-hungry nurses by falsifying their proposed wage increases to the public. The hospital has “set the record straight” by saying “it is impossible for the union (nurses) to even know whether our staffing is safe or not when they will not even listen to what the current staffing is.”
Our response is that we are the “current staff” on the front lines, witnessing the detrimental effects of unsafe staffing. Our main concern is to implement concrete staffing regulations, in stark contrast to their proposed “guidelines,” which still have not been defined.
The bottom line is that the administration is not driven by safe staffing. If the administration’s concern was patient safety, why would it ask inexperienced medical students at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School to act as “support staff” during a strike?
If nurses were truly about the money, why wouldn’t we accept the additional $20 an hour they’re proposing for each time we are short staffed? But no amount of money is worth putting our patients at risk.
They boast about how many nurses they have hired in the past year, but our units still fall short, with nurses on medical/surgical floors consistently assigned six patients per shift.
Meanwhile, the travel nurses the administration hired to replace us have cost the hospital $17.9 million. Rather than spending that money on nurses contracted to work for a short period of time, why not invest in the nurses that have dedicated their careers to your establishment?
In every single one of these scenarios, nursing burnout fails to be addressed, and we have had enough.
OUR LAST RESORT
The decision to strike was our last resort to create a voice for ourselves in the fight for better staffing ratios. It comes at a great cost to each nurse on the picket line. We have been on strike since 7:00 a.m. on August 4 and have no intention of backing down.
We are confident that staffing regulations are successful in improving patient outcomes—for evidence, we can point to California’s mandated staffing ratios.
We are up against New Jersey’s largest health care system, and we ask that you help us draw attention to the injustices that we and our patients face daily. Our hope is that our efforts extend beyond our situation and can promote the change that our nation so desperately needs. We stand by our patients, and we cannot return to them without winning this fight for them.
We just received notice that Senator Bernie Sanders has written a letter to our CEO urging their cooperation in negotiations and showing his support for the nurses. Here is our petition to Governor Phil Murphy urging him to support us on the picket line. We’d be grateful for your support!
Kelsey Khan is an operating room nurse on strike at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.