National union blames hospitals for staffing crisis; hospitals point to pandemic challenges

The nation's largest union and professional association of registered nurses is blaming hospitals for creating a staffing crisis. However, hospitals are disputing the claim and pointing to challenges workers are facing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an Aug. 26 news release, National Nurses United alleges there is a shortage of nurses willing to work in the unsafe and unsustainable conditions that it says hospitals impose on healthcare workers. 

The union, which reports a nationwide membership of more than 175,000 nurses, claims hospitals are driving nurses away from direct patient care by refusing to staff its units with enough nurses to provide such care safely and optimally.

Furthermore, National Nurses United contends hospitals often cancel or "call off" contracted nurses who are scheduled to work, will send nurses home who have reported for their scheduled shifts, are not hiring or are hiring at a slow pace and will end contracts with travel or agency nurses.

"Many nurses have made the difficult decision to stop providing hands-on nursing care in order to protect themselves, their nursing licenses, their families and their patients," the union wrote.

Overall, the union, which has supported minimum nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, said it wants hospitals to hire more staff and improve working conditions so nurses will return to direct care. 

Hospitals refute the union's accusations, which did not name any particular organization. 

In an Aug. 27 statement, Federation of American Hospitals President and CEO Chip Kahn said the union "must be experiencing a different reality than the rest of us. All over the country stressed front-line caregivers, including nurses, are performing valiantly in the face of an ongoing tragedy. But the truth is these heroes are in short supply."

Mr. Kahn said hospitals are making every possible effort to ensure they are providing the best care for patients, as well as meeting the challenge to ensure adequate staffing and necessary protective equipment and supplies. 

"But, to deny the headwinds we are facing with staffing reflects a regrettable lack of understanding of the unimaginable stresses the COVID-19 pandemic continues to place on caregivers, hospitals and the patients that depend on us," he said.

In a separate statement, Robyn Begley, DNP, RN, the American Hospital Association's senior vice president and chief nursing officer, and the CEO of the American Organization for Nursing Leadership, said hospital and health system leaders have used various approaches to recruit, retain and support their workforce, and have advocated that Congress and federal officials prioritize programs such as scholarships and loan repayment for nurses and nursing faculty.

She also pointed to the work of healthcare employees during the last year and a half.

"Along with clinical and administrative leaders in our field, they [the workers] have worked tirelessly and courageously day in and day out to care for patients in their communities. They have taken on unimagined challenges and have risen to the occasion time and time again, all while confronting numerous challenges outside the control of hospitals and health systems, including changing variants of the virus like the delta variant, an underfunded public health infrastructure, changing guidance from authorities, and the politicization of masking and vaccines, to name just a few examples," said Dr. Begley.

Amid the latest pandemic wave, "our healthcare workers' crucial life-saving roles have never been more evident, which is why their safety, protection and well-being, including mental health, remain a top priority," she said.

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