New York Daily News: MANHATTAN – With the traumas of COVID still freshly seared into their minds, New York City nurses are once again sounding the alarm that staffing shortages at local hospitals are jeopardizing the well-being of themselves and their patients.
Nurses in the Big Apple and throughout New York State are planning a series of protests starting this week to highlight what they say is a failure on the part of hospitals to staff jobs that started to become vacant after the first pandemic wave roared through the region.
That failure, they contend, has left some hospitals with patient-to-nurse ratios as high as 30 to 1 and many nurses overworked to the point of complete burnout.
“We have a massive nursing shortage,” said Eric Smith, the statewide field director for the New York State Nurses Association. “We have a vacuum in the double and triple digits all across the New York area.”
Smith said members of the union are the angriest he’s seen them in years because many assumed hospitals would have learned from the staffing shortages they experienced during the darkest days of COVID.
But, he added, they were wrong. And the situation has only worsened.
“They lived through this pandemic, and their employers have learned nothing,” he said. “The emergency departments are a disaster. We’re talking nurses with 20 patients each.”
According to Smith, Montefiore, Mt. Sinai and New York Presbyterian are among the most severely overburdened places for nurses to work right now.
Noemi De Jesus-Aponte, who works at Presbyterian in Washington Heights and has been a nurse since 1984, said staffing ratios in recent weeks have gone as high as 30 patients to one nurse at any given time there. But the situation that hospitals now find themselves in was entirely predictable, she said.
Before COVID, NYSNA and the hospitals its members work in have known that starting in 2020 the number of nurses retiring would skyrocket and remain high until 2025.
“We have known for 15 years,” she said. “[The year] 2020 was going to be the largest retirement because of the baby boomers. The retirees left, and they froze those positions, and they didn’t fill those positions.”
This has created what De Jesus-Aponte and others describe as a vicious cycle. Because the staffing situation has become so dire, many of the nurses who’ve remained are quitting their jobs as well — not because they’re of retirement age, but because they’re burnt out or have found a better paying or less stressful job elsewhere.
“We need more people at the bedside to take care of the patients,” she said. “The poor patient that’s left behind with the injury is victimized.”
Despite the shortages, nurses and doctors are still responsible for the well-being of their patients — which has left many nurses more fearful that they could lose their license if something goes wrong.
“It’s really a survival instinct at this point — whether you want to stay here and lose your license,” De Jesus-Aponte said of her colleagues’ impulse to leave. “You have to decide whether to stay under subnormal conditions or leave and you have some sense of sanity. People are choosing to leave.”
That exodus has predictably caused staffing ratios to widen even more.
To push back, nurses are planning a series of protests scheduled to begin this week, starting with one outside New York Presbyterian in Washington Heights on Wednesday. In the following weeks, protests are planned for Presbyterian’s Hudson Valley Hospital in Westchester, Mt. Sinai West in Manhattan, Staten Island University Hospital and Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.
Lucia Lee, a spokeswoman for Mt. Sinai, declined to directly address the upcoming protests, but countered that the hospital network has “fought for our nurses, from securing [personal protective equipment], to providing bonuses that recognize their heroic efforts.”
“Nurses are essential to providing the best medical care in the world and we are confident we will continue to attract and retain the talent we need,” she added.
Maimonides spokeswoman Stephanie Baez conceded that “staffing has been a challenge faced by hospitals locally and nationally as the pandemic has gone on,” but added that the hospital has “taken steps to recruit as many nurses as needed to meet our workforce needs.”
A representative from Presbyterian did not return a message.
NYSNA President Nancy Hagans said hospitals are not doing enough and that staffing shortages have been further exacerbated by the number of nurses who died from COVID or are still out sick due to its long-term effects.
“Nurses are leaving because of the work conditions,” she said. “They’re just tired of it. They’re leaving the profession. They have no confidence in management.”
Hagans works at Maimonides Medical Center, which she said has used higher-paid traveling nurses to temporarily fill some of their staffing gaps. That has led some permanent staff to seek the same kind of work in search of better pay elsewhere, Hagans said.
“They’ll take jobs for 90 days, but after 90 days, you’re still short,” Hagans said of the traveling nurses who work at Maimonides.
An advantage to hiring traveling nurses is they come with experience and take less time to get up to speed — compared to nurses fresh out of school who take up to three months to train. But, Hagan said, the reliance on the traveling nurses is short-sighted.
“Using the travelers is a Band-Aid,” she said. “It’s really not stopping the bleeding.”