Oct 12, 2021 - Health

The health care worker revolt

Illustration of hands in medical gloves holding red picket signs, forming a red cross symbol.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The toll of the coronavirus pandemic has spurred nurses, front-line technicians and other hospital employees to walk out or authorize strikes.

Why it matters: The pandemic has buckled a system that already faced worker shortages and burnout. Patients ultimately can't receive adequate care if workers leave from the stress and violence.

Driving the news: Unions representing more than 24,000 nurses and other hospital workers yesterday authorized strikes at Kaiser Permanente facilities in California and Oregon.

  • A strike authorization does not automatically trigger a strike. Unions still have to provide hospitals with a 10-day notice before walking out.
  • Kaiser Permanente proposed 1% annual pay raises over the next three years and a two-tier wage system, but unions want 4% annual pay raises and no two-tier system.

Zoom out: The Kaiser Permanente fight is just the latest of several labor disputes.

  • More than 700 nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital, a Tenet Healthcare facility in Massachusetts, have been on strike for seven months.
  • Roughly 2,000 people who work at Mercy Hospital in New York, part of Catholic Health System, have been on strike since the start of October.
  • Home care workers in Connecticut rallied for higher pay last month.
  • Other recent health care strikes have taken place in Alabama, Montana and Oregon, among other places.

What they're saying: "We're drowning. There's just not enough staff," Jennifer Stone, a unionized ER technician at Sutter Delta Medical Center in California, said in a press release earlier this month. "We're talking down angry COVID patients, then we're rushing to a code ... We can't do it all anymore."

The big picture: The health care industry has lost more than 540,000 jobs between February 2020 and September 2021.

  • Hospitals are down 117,000 people, and nursing homes are down 247,000.

The bottom line: Low staffing levels are often the driving force behind health care work stoppages, and the pandemic has made that situation even worse in many areas.

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