Nurses call for union rights and better patient care

By RACHEL JUIENG | December 6, 2018

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Panelists discussed issues such as understaffing and turnover COURTESY OF NATIONAL NURSES UNITED

Nurses from the Hopkins Hospital and National Nurses United (NNU), a union of registered nurses, joined local politicians and community members for a town hall event on Saturday at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. Nurses from the Hospital gave a presentation called “Reputation vs. Reality,” arguing that the institution does not live up to its worldwide reputation. 

During the presentation, NNU revealed three investigative reports, which alleged that the Hospital was creating an unsafe environment for patients and nurses. The report highlighted understaffing of nurses, insufficient safety equipment and mandatory overtime as major issues.

Nurses at the Hospital have been trying to unionize since early June. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently reported that the Hospital has violated federal law by enacting anti-union regulations, including banning nurses from communicating with workers in other units and coming in to work on their days off.

The nurses, in conjunction with NNU, hosted Saturday’s event to publicly explain why they believe forming a union is necessary. 

Suzanne Levitch, a registered nurse at the Hospital, detailed the difficulties the nurses faced while trying to form a union.

“After the administration discovered the nurses’ attempt to unionize, they hired professional union busters to work against it, and additionally, the management ramped up intimidation and fear tactics — nurses faced suspension,” she said. “Now it is up to the Hospital to either go to the federal government against these charges or come to a settlement with the nurses.”

Elijah Cummings, U.S. representative for Maryland’s 7th congressional district, showed up to support the nurses. He explained that after spending six months at the Hospital, he understood the extent of work that nurses do.

“I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t. I didn’t realize that you use these hands to deliver babies. You use these hands to dry tears,” he said. “You are the ones who constantly worry about patients even when you’re going home.”

Cummings emphasized the importance of the nurses’ unionization attempts, comparing the Hospital’s union-busting policies to voter suppression. 

Despite discouragement from their employer, many other nurses spoke out about the unsafe working conditions. 

Levitch, as well as other nurses, including Kate Phillips, Gail Levin, and Toni Fowler, shared personal stories about times when the Hospital failed to create a safe work environment.

They noted that the working conditions in the Hospital not only affect nurses, but their patients as well.

Levin explained that because the Hospital is severely understaffed, nurses must frequently complete mandatory overtime work and still patients must wait for longer hours.

“In the emergency department, patients have experienced seizures, loss of consciousness from bleeding and cardiac arrest, all while waiting to be treated. Waits have gone as long as 18 hours,” she said.

Phillips commented that understaffing impacts patients in critical care, because there are not enough nurses available to provide “sitters.” Sitters are stationed in rooms with patients who might be at risk of inadvertently injuring themselves. 

Instead, nurses must choose which patients get sitters and which get physical restraints.  

Dr. Marisela Gomez, community activist and author, explained that this overstaffing could also lead to consequences for nurses’ health. She said that by working long hours, many workers could experience fatigue.

“One of the benefits within how [the Hospital] takes care of nurses better is mental health could become part of that, which would allow the nurse to be healthier and provide better care for the patient,” she said.

Studies indicate that fatigue contributes to medical errors. A Hopkins study suggests that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the U.S.

According to the report, 95% of surveyed nurses report insufficient staffing in their units. 

Many of the nurses also reported that the gloves they use for patient care are extremely prone to ripping. 

The report explains that the tendency of gloves to rip could potentially increase the risk of spreading infectious diseases.

“Gloves that are sturdy are especially important on the [Comprehensive Transplant Unit] because they care for patients with different communicable diseases (e.g., HIV hepatitis CB and C) and patients who receive medications with hazardous handling precautions,” the report reads.

According to NNU, only six percent of Hopkins nurses surveyed report they always have quality gloves to protect them.

Panelists also discussed the turnover rates at the Hospital, which contributes to a lack of guidance from experienced nurses and causes an increase in patient to nurse ratio. 

Fowler explained that because the nurses are so overworked, many leave to find jobs with better working conditions. She explained that this results in units where the most senior nurse only has a year of work experience.

Stephanie Sims is the Chief Nurse Representative of the Washington Hospital Center. She explained that the difficulties nurses face in their work are common throughout the U.S. She stated that this is a reason why they should form a union.

“Hospitals are about their bottom line – about making profit. Hospitals will use whatever they can – scare tactics – to put the fear in nurses. [Nurses] are physically and mentally drained: they’re overworked, they’re understaffed,” she said. “It’s not uncommon for nurses to go without using the bathroom or taking a meal break just to make sure that their patients are taken care of.”

By forming a union, Sims argued that the nurses’ agreed-upon benefits would be ensured, even if there is a change in Hospital administration.

Sims explained that because she too is a nurse, the subject matter of the event was of personal importance to her.

“As a nurse, it was very important to support the nurses at Johns Hopkins – all of the issues that Hopkins’ nurses are facing, it’s a nationwide issue, so it’s not just something that’s impacting them, it’s something that’s impacting us all,” she said.

Mitchell Byrne, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, attended the event. She said that she fully supports the nurses’ efforts.

“We stand with the nurses. My favorite part by far was listening to the nurses themselves,” she said. “They’re really putting their necks out there.”

In an email to The News-Letter, Kim Hoppe, a spokesperson for the Hospital, expressed that the institution is committed to serving the patients and their nurses. 

“The 3,200 nurses working at The Johns Hopkins Hospital are critical to providing this world-class care to our patients and their families. We deeply respect the contributions nurses make to our organization and all of their rights as employees, including their right to support or oppose a union,” she wrote.

Hoppe explained that the Hospital is a non-profit organization, and that one of its main priorities is patient care. 

“On behalf of the nurses, faculty and staff at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, a not-for-profit hospital, we are proud of the high quality and compassionate care we provide and the contributions we make every day for our community. The safety of our patients, providers and staff is always our first priority, and we consistently earn recognition as one of the nation’s best hospitals for patient safety and care,” she wrote.

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