Nurses Knew How to Fix Health Care. We Should’ve Listened

When nurses at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics launched a campaign to unionize in 2019, they presented a platform as straightforward as it was urgent: Address chronic understaffing and keep patients safe.

Nurses lost their ability to formally negotiate with their employers after the state’s GOP-controlled legislature passed Act 10, an anti-labor bill devised by Governor Scott Walker that largely ended the collective bargaining rights of public-sector workers. The nurses still hoped the hospital would voluntarily recognize and then “meet and confer” with the union to address issues like understaffing. 

The same Wisconsin nurses who advocated for better nurse-to-patient ratios two years ago are now stretched beyond a reasonable limit.

After all, having fewer nurses on call can be a matter of life and death for patients. But the hospital declined to recognize the union, arguing that “employee feedback” would be enough to address any workplace issue.

This was before the pandemic. Across Wisconsin, confirmed cases of the coronavirus quadrupled in the last week alone, leaving six dead as of March 26. Currently, testing for the virus is not widely available, and hospitals are already straining to provide sufficient protections for staff and patients. With cases increasing rapidly, the need for protections like paid sick leave has never been more dire, which is why Wisconsin’s health care workers have begun pushing for emergency provisions. 

“No worker should ever have to come to work sick because they can’t afford to stay home,” said Ann Louise Tetreault, a registered nurse and vice president of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, during a March 20 press call addressed to health care employers around the state and Governor Tony Evers. “We already see sick patients come [to] the hospital straight from their jobs because they could not afford to call in sick.” 

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On March 20, SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin released a statement calling for hospitals to cover the full cost of COVID-19 testing for all employees, along with up to eight weeks of paid time off for absences related to the disease. The statement also stipulates that absences due to COVID-19 should not be counted punitively. 

Though the charge was led by nurses, workers in different roles—sanitary workers, food service workers, and others—crafted and endorsed the statement as well. 

The Wisconsin nurses’ shift from calling for preventative measures—appropriate staffing levels—to urging for action in crisis is echoed by National Nurses United, the nurses’ union that campaigned for Medicare for All earlier this year. 

Members of National Nurses United have staged visual demonstrations in hospitals and in the streets to demand the provision of personal protective equipment. National Nurses United’s Executive Director, Bonnie Castillo, has made her Twitter account a platform for nurses on the ground demanding medical supplies. And Jean Ross, the union’s president, took to Democracy Now! to broadcast data on equipment shortages as reported by nurses. 

As hospital workers struggle with a lack of life-saving tests and equipment, President Donald Trump refused to deploy the Defense Protection Act: Although the bill allows the government to compel the private sector to manufacture these supplies, Trump declined to authorize funding for it, saying, “We’re a country not based on nationalizing our business.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency did not wait for Trump, announcing on March 25 that it had procured test kits “from the private market” without the Defense Protection Act. 

But right now, hospitals are running out of N-95 respirators, one of the few masks that can filter pathogens as small as COVID-19, while others have come up short even on standard surgical masks. A few hospitals have required nurses to reuse masks, or encouraged them to donate homemade ones. 

This shortage of masks, along with other equipment, has prompted state officials—such as New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy—to plead for federal assistance. “We are desperate for more PPE, personal protective equipment,” said Murphy on ABC’s This Week

As Trump calls for the economy to be “opened up and just raring to go” by April 12, the influx of patients seeking treatment stands to grow dramatically. The same Wisconsin nurses who advocated for better nurse-to-patient ratios two years ago are now stretched beyond a reasonable limit.

Amid the exacerbated staffing shortage, the Wisconsin Nursing Board has taken emergency measures to allow nurses—who would not otherwise be on the floor—to practice.

And the union nurses who pushed for Medicare for All are experiencing the fallout of a privatized health care system in crisis; many Americans avoided costly doctor visits at the outset of the coronavirus which could have curbed the virus’s spread. 

Nurses on the ground are all too familiar with the shortcomings of the splintered U.S. health care system. Many have long advocated for measures that would have saved lives. Today, as nurses struggle on the front lines of a pandemic, we can’t afford to ignore their leadership. 

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Alice Herman | Radio Free (2022-09-30T17:16:23+00:00) » Nurses Knew How to Fix Health Care. We Should’ve Listened. Retrieved from https://www.radiofree.org/2020/03/26/nurses-knew-how-to-fix-health-care-we-shouldve-listened/.
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" » Nurses Knew How to Fix Health Care. We Should’ve Listened." Alice Herman | Radio Free - Thursday March 26, 2020, https://www.radiofree.org/2020/03/26/nurses-knew-how-to-fix-health-care-we-shouldve-listened/
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» Nurses Knew How to Fix Health Care. We Should’ve Listened | Alice Herman | Radio Free | https://www.radiofree.org/2020/03/26/nurses-knew-how-to-fix-health-care-we-shouldve-listened/ | 2022-09-30T17:16:23+00:00
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