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Nurse on strike for 7 months says 'we cannot relent now' as pandemic depletes nursing field

Registered Nurses and supporters stand in a picket line and wave to cars as they drive by outside St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, on Feb. 24, 2021. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images)
Registered Nurses and supporters stand in a picket line and wave to cars as they drive by outside St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, on Feb. 24, 2021. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images)

Hundreds of nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, walked off the job on March 8, 2021, and have been on strike ever since.

The hospital says it’s made its “last, best and final offer” and is asking the nurses to return to work. But the strike remains unresolved over a return-to-work provision that the union won’t accept.

Nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital went on strike to improve the safety of their working conditions in order to bring patients the highest quality of care, says Marie Ritacco, one of the nurses on strike and vice president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

The two parties were able to come to a tentative agreement on staffing improvements in August. But the hospital’s offer included a dealbreaker: While the 700 striking nurses would be re-hired, 15% of them would not be able to return to their prior positions.

Ritacco says that proposal would create an even “more unsafe” environment than before the strike because senior-level nurses in specialty and critical care areas would be some of the most impacted, and their jobs would be taken by novice nurses.

Because the hospital remained open during the strike, interim nurses were hired to fill the gap. The hospital wants to offer these interim nurses permanent positions.

“If you take away the ability for specialty nurses to stand up and advocate for their patients because they are fearful that if they had to go on strike, they would not get their jobs back, you’re essentially beating people into submission to keep them quiet over an issue that really matters when it comes to public safety,” Ritacco says.

It’s paramount for health care professionals to strike — something that can dramatically affect patient care — when conditions are unsafe, she says. Once Saint Vincent Hospital faced the pandemic, it was clear the hospital needed additional staffing, she argues, and not taking any action on the matter would be a “disservice for patient care.”

It left the nurses with no choice but to strike, she says.

“We felt that in the long run, it is worse for patients if you stay,” she says. “When an employer will not even discuss or entertain the idea of improving staffing, you realize that by staying in the building, you’re being silent.”

There’s “no doubt” nurses are struggling and reconsidering their profession while facing “the greatest health care crisis” in their careers, she says. At Saint Vincent Hospital, Ritacco alleges the initial pandemic response from hospital management was to re-wear masks and gowns for multiple shifts in a row or take on one too many COVID-19 patient assignments.

The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses recently released a new survey that found 92% of nurses report the pandemic has depleted the people working in their field and will cut their careers short.

In the same survey, 66% said they’ve considered leaving nursing given their pandemic experiences.

It doesn’t come as a surprise to Ritacco that some nurses would remove themselves out of the field to protect themselves and their families, she says.

Prior to the pandemic, critical care and acute care nurses reported a 35% to 40% burnout rate, says Vicki Good, a nurse and past president of the American Association of Critical-care Nurses. The pandemic “became an accelerant to that smoldering fire,” giving nurses more reasons to entertain changing fields, she says.

On top of tending to coronavirus symptoms, health care professionals across the country have reported arguing with patients about virus treatment, vaccines and misinformation. Good says that adds to the “moral distress” nurses — who took an oath to care for every single patient that comes their way — feel during the pandemic.

Good notes the long-term and short-term stakes of nurse burnout are high: the emotional toll, exodus of talented nurses from the field, increase in suicides and reports of posttraumatic stress disorder.

Improving nurses’ working conditions goes “deeper than compensation,” she says. “People like to put that front and center, but there’s much deeper roots to what causes burnout.”

Good suggests analyzing the work environment by assessing communication needs, cultivating a supportive workspace and functioning as a team. Long-term solutions for the profession, specifically in response to the pandemic, must start at the nursing school level, she says, and include thinking about adequate support at the bedside in every hospital environment.

This week in Plymouth, Minnesota, a nurses strike closed urgent care services and the emergency room. More than 24,000 nurses and health care workers at Kaiser Permanente in Oregon and California have authorized a strike over pay and working conditions.

And in central Massachusetts, cold weather is quickly approaching where Saint Vincent Hospital nurses remain on the picket line after more than half a year.

“We started this in the cold, and if we have to end it in the cold, that’s what we’ll do,” Saint Vincent Hospital nurse Ritacco says. “We feel that we can not relent now.”

She argues that unionized workers across the country have some leverage to push employers to do better — and nurses at St. Vincent Hospital are just one group of many who are taking advantage of it.

“We will continue until we are victorious,” Ritacco says. “And being victorious for us means that our patients are going to get better care and nurses inside that building will be treated with much more respect than they have been.”


 Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.