AFSCME nurses share worries about staffing crisis with Biden administration

AFSCME nurses from affiliates with tens of thousands of members in the health care sector met with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra this month to share their concerns about the nationwide staffing crisis that is putting health care workers and patients at risk.

The four nurses who met with Becerra were Charmaine Morales, a registered nurse who is president of the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals (UNAC/UHCP); Patricia Waller, a registered nurse in Ohio who is also president of AFSCME Local 1252 and a Council 8 regional vice president; Rosemarie Kukys, a registered nurse in New York who is a member of the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) and vice president of Local 836; and Rhonda Cox, a licensed practical nurse in New Jersey who is a member of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees (NUHHCE), District 1199J.

They were joined by AFSCME President Lee Saunders, who highlighted our union’s Staff the Front Lines initiative to help staffing shortages in nursing and public service professions across the board.

Morales, Waller, Kukys and Cox emphasized the need for the federal government to get more involved in solving a nationwide staffing crisis in the health care sector that is putting communities at risk. The lack of nursing personnel is creating unsafe working conditions and compromising their ability to provide quality care. Nursing homes and correctional facilities are especially dangerous, since many temporary or agency nurses are unwilling to work in those facilities due to the dangerous conditions.

Nurse staffing shortages have been a problem for many years but became much worse after the COVID-19 pandemic left many workers on the front lines feeling overwhelmed and burned out. Improved nurse-to-patient ratios lead directly to safer workplaces and better outcomes for patients. That’s why AFSCME – which counts some 60,000 nurses among our members – has a long history of advocating for strong and enforceable nurse staffing ratios.

A quarter century ago, UNAC/UHCP led a successful fight in California to achieve our nation’s first safe staffing mandates. Today, AFSCME members are continuing that fight at the national level.

Pandemic-era nursing shortages made matters worse for those who remained, creating a vicious cycle in which deteriorating working conditions led to higher turnover. Nurses weren’t alone. The same thing happened to front-line workers across all public service professions, Saunders pointed out in a guest column published in Newsweek to promote AFSCME’s Staff the Front Lines initiative and the bus tour.

"The more punishing the work, the more likely people are to look elsewhere,” Saunders wrote. “There's a vicious cycle, with staffing shortages breeding more staffing shortages."

The goal of Staff the Front Lines is to persuade local and state officials to step up hiring to fill the nearly 1 million vacancies in public service professions nationwide that exist to this day, though the pandemic is behind us.

"Public service workers take pride in building healthy and vibrant communities. During the pandemic especially, at a moment of chaos and confusion, they answered the call,” Saunders wrote. “They stood on the front lines, continuing to plow the roads, provide health care, staff the libraries, and so much more. But right now, they are overworked and overwhelmed. And there are qualified people out there to help shoulder the load.”