New York City's nurses strike reflects nationwide staffing challenges Thousands of nurses at two New York hospitals are on strike for a third day. Their staffing shortages and other problems predate the pandemic, says the president of the American Nurses Association.

NYC nurses are on strike, but the problems they face are seen nationwide

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1148333140/1148333141" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

DWANE BROWN, HOST:

More than 7,000 nurses are striking for a third day at two New York hospitals over a new contract. They say pay is one issue, but staffing levels are a bigger one. One striking nurse said she used to care for four patients at a time in the emergency room or ER, but that's now up to 20 on some days. And the coronavirus pandemic only worsened the nursing shortage nationwide. An aging population is also straining the health care system. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates 1 million new nurses will be needed between now and 2030. Joining us to talk about this - the shortage and solutions - is Jennifer Mensik Kennedy. She's president of the American Nurses Association.

Good morning, Jennifer.

JENNIFER MENSIK KENNEDY: Good morning.

BROWN: You know, burnout seems to be a big problem here. What are you hearing from nurses on the picket line?

MENSIK KENNEDY: Part of this is - what's going on today is that these work environment challenges have been predating COVID-19, and nurses have been - experience many of these challenges for decades. And the current strain of COVID-19 and other public health emergencies have only worsened many of these existing challenges and issues.

BROWN: And as it relates to hospitals, there are two in the New York area where these nurses are striking. What seems to be their response at this point?

MENSIK KENNEDY: I want to note that striking is always a last resort.

BROWN: Sure.

MENSIK KENNEDY: And the nurses really want to focus in on the safe staffing as being a very important issue. The American Nurses Association shares the frustration with the lack of sustainable solutions to address the staffing concerns, workplace violent incidents and other unchecked work environment challenges. And so the actions being taken in New York reflect the experiences and feelings many nurses nationwide.

BROWN: You know, I was reading a comment from one nurse, a chief nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital. She said something like, this is a national workforce crisis.

MENSIK KENNEDY: Yeah, absolutely. We definitely need more nurses. But what we've found for decades of research and programs is that when we have really good work environments for nurses, where nurses are valued, nurses are listened to and nurses can provide quality safe care, those hospitals, those organizations don't experience the shortages that other hospitals do. There are solutions that organizations can put in place to attract nurses and retain nurses. And nurses will go to those organizations where they feel valued and they feel like at the end of the day, at the end of this shift, that they were able to provide good quality care to people.

BROWN: Remind us how we got to this point, and why aren't there enough nurses?

MENSIK KENNEDY: Great question. And we've, you know, experienced shortages of nurses historically for, you know, many decades. And right now we have an aging population. We've got the baby boomers aging. We have, you know, many choices for nurses - for women to go into other professions. And we have a lack of faculty who are able to, you know, bring those nursing students in. We had many nurses who - many people who wanted to go into nursing school, for instance, who were just unable to get enrolled into the nursing school 'cause there's just not enough spaces.

BROWN: But faculty - there's an issue of pay there, too, right?

MENSIK KENNEDY: Absolutely. Often times, new graduate nurses will make more than their faculty who are teaching them.

BROWN: Wow.

MENSIK KENNEDY: So we have to address issues like that. Why would someone want to come and teach if they're a new graduate? Nurses are going to make more than them right out of school.

BROWN: How do we concretely address the short- and long-term issues here?

MENSIK KENNEDY: The American Nurses Association, you know, shares the nurses' frustration with a lack of solutions. And, you know, we've really worked together with decision makers in organizations and nationally to say, you know, we really do need to work through and address safe staffing issues. We need to look at how we can address getting more nurses to be faculty and address the faculty shortage. And we also need to look at the work environment and encourage nurses to stay nurses and not to leave the profession. And we want nurses to be nurses for their entire career. So those are the three areas I think we could really focus in on in order to make sustainable change.

BROWN: My grandmother was a nurse into her 80s, so it is definitely a big need to this - even to this day, right?

MENSIK KENNEDY: Nurses become nurses because they want to take care of people. That's what we feel we can leave at the end of our shift, knowing we helped someone. There's no better feeling.

BROWN: Jennifer Mensik Kennedy is president of the American Nurses Association. Thank you so much for your time today.

MENSIK KENNEDY: Thank you.

Copyright © 2023 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.