Nurses who have the coronavirus are fighting their employers to get paid time off: 'Nobody really cares about my safety'
Nurses are on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, and many have contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as a result. Nurses across the country told Business Insider that they have struggled to get paid time off, workers' compensation, and protective equipment from their employers. But nurses have battled with hospitals for years over pay cuts and staffing shortages. The pandemic has further exacerbated economic inequities in a profession dominated by women.
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For weeks, the only contact Ana, a nurse in California, had with her 4- and 1-year old children was watching them play outside from her bedroom window. She contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in early April, and had to self-quarantine away from her children and her father for more than a month. The single mom, a labor and delivery nurse at a hospital with confirmed coronavirus patients, started developing a sore throat and fatigue on April 4. She tested positive for the virus four days later, and immediately told her supervisor she contracted the disease at work. (There were confirmed cases around her unit, and she hadn't gone anywhere other than work prior to testing positive, she told Insider.) But the hospital administration initially denied that she got sick at work. This kept her from getting workers' compensation, which provides relief for people injured or harmed on the job. Though California governor Gavin Newsom recently signed an executive order that made it harder for employers to deny workers' compensation for COVID-19 patients, Ana still had to use her remaining personal time off. She didn't get paid for 4 weeks. Business Insider spoke with nurses across the country who contracted COVID-19, and they echoed Ana's concerns. They've struggled to get workers' compensation or paid time off from their employers, they reported. They also said that hospitals have failed to provide masks and create protocols for treating patients safely. The nurses featured in this story asked to remain anonymous for fear of backlash from their employers. Business Insider confirmed all identities and job titles of sources before publishing.
So far, 62,000 healthcare workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in the US, and at least 60 registered nurses have died. In a recent survey of nearly 23,000 nurses, one-third of respondents reported being told to use their personal time off if they contract the potentially deadly disease. But while the conflict between vulnerable nurses and hospital management has reached a breaking point during the coronavirus pandemic, the rift is not new. Nurses have been calling for protections from workplace harassment for years: safer workspaces, better pay, and more staff. Hospital administrators, lobbyists, and private employers, however, have often worked against meeting these demands. Nurses who contracted coronavirus on the job feel unprotected by their employers Like Ana, a nurse in New York City took one week of personal paid time off after testing positive for COVID-19. The nurse worked the night shift, treating two to three patients with COVID-19 at a time in the intensive care unit. She described her job as physically and mentally taxing: she had few breaks during her 12-hour shifts due to staff shortages, and got headaches from wearing ill-fitting N95 masks all night. She struggled with treating her anxious patients, and described tearing up during her shifts. Another nurse in Los Angeles developed fever and sinus problems on March 16, shortly after treating a confirmed COVID-19 patient. She believes she had the disease, but her hospital refused to test her and, at the time, did not give her additional time off. (On April 18, the hospital adopted 120 hours additional hours that nurses could use to quarantine or help with sick family members.) Hospital nurses are among the most susceptible to contracting coronavirus from a patient, as studies show they spend more time at bedsides than any other healthcare worker. "Registered nurses assume many risks on the job, from workplace violence to contracting a deadly disease," said Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, a nurse and president of the National Nurses United union. "It's imperative that their livelihoods are protected when they are not able to work due to an occupational hazard or exposure, such as quarantining or falling ill from COVID-19." If you are a nurse with a story to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Victoria, a school nurse, told Business Insider she also contracted COVID-19 on the job. She had been an early proponent of school closings after she noticed students with high fevers and absences in early January. Still, her administration did not close schools until March 13, and she tested positive one week later. "The school principal and the president didn't reach out personally," Victoria said. "I busted my butt to have Purell in rooms, to pull students out because I didn't want these kids in the hospital. My students have DMing me such nice things, but not a word from the administration. Not one."
Photo by @hannahreyesmorales | On her day off from the hospital, Allison, a nurse, visits her son Lucas, and they read together— through a glass door in the home she's temporarily isolated from. Globally women make up approximately 70% of health and social service workers. For moms at the front line, providing critical care amid the pandemic comes with the additional challenge of caregiving for their own families. I've often associated safety with holding our loved ones physically close, but in these times safety also means distance and space. For more stories on safer space making follow me @hannahreyesmorales. #Massachusetts #COVID19 @insidenatgeo A post shared by National Geographic (@natgeo) on May 21, 2020 at 12:33pm PDT on May 21, 2020 at 12:33pm PDT
Many nurses on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic could not access proper protective equipment Due to a nationwide shortage of masks — caused partly because hospitals slashed inventory before the pandemic — nurses previously told Business Insider they lack enough masks and gloves needed to treat suspected coronavirus patients. As a result, 72% of nurses nationwide reported having exposed skin or clothing when caring for suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients, according to the recent survey from the NNU union. Meanwhile, when one nurse tried to share tips about how her floor treated patients on Facebook in lieu of formal protocol, she subsequently got suspended from her HCA Healthcare hospital subsidiary for violating social media policies. Some nurses, including John Pearson at Highland Hospital in Oakland, said their hospitals hadn't established protocol for prepare for treating suspected COVID-19 before the outbreak. Pearson has been vocal about the hospital on his Twitter account, and had previously posted photos about the hospital's lack of PPE for nurses. "The scariest thing for us who work at the bedside is to end up making a choice between who lives and who dies because we don't have enough staffing and equipment," Pearson told Business Insider. (Business Insider reached out to Highland Hospital for comment.) Nurses were at odds with hospitals over safe workspaces and adequate staffing long before the COVID-19 crisis
Though the coronavirus pandemic highlighted some challenges within the nursing industry, the friction between nurses and hospital management has been building for years. As baby boomers age, US demand for healthcare staff has increased; the workforce has among the highest projected job growth in the next decade. Yet the job has become increasingly taxing for those working in it: the industry has a higher than average rate of suicide, and a 17.2% turnover rate for bedside nurses. One point of tension between nurses and hospitals is patient ratios. Linda Aiken, a longtime researcher and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has found that when nurses don't have more than four patients at a time, it can save lives and lead to less readmission. Just 18% of respondents believed their nurse-to-patient ratios were safe, according to a 2019 survey of Illinois nurses. Still, only one US state limits how many patients a nurse can care for during their shift. Hospitals have reduced staff to cut costs, and nurses in California, Michigan, and Massachusetts have protested staff reductions in the last few years. In 2016, nurses in Massachusetts tried to pass a ballot initiative that would decrease patient ratios, but voters ultimately decided against the proposal. Linda Aiken told Modern Healthcare that the hospital lobbying group outspent nurses by $5 million to campaign against the nurse-led reform. In 2019, nurses in Michigan attempted to form a union in order to fight against budget cuts and other staffing issues; over the past few years, thousands of unionized nurses authorized strikes in California, Illinois, and Vermont. Nurses, already among the most vulnerable workforces in the country, are left to pay their own time off or find a new job
Now, nurses are fighting back once again by protesting working conditions amid a worldwide pandemic. Nurses at 15 HCA hospitals in six states will stage a mass protest this week, according to a press release from the NNU. HCA, the largest health system in the country, introduced pay cuts for senior leeadership on May 12 and cut hours for nurses due what it says is a reduction in the volume of elective procedures. HCA spokesperson Harlow Sumerford told Business Insider the company has not laid off any caregivers as a result of COVID-19. "We call on all health facilities to immediately agree that any nurse exposed to COVID-19 be fully compensated while off work, without having to use PTO or lose pay or benefits," union president Triunfo-Cortez said in a statement to Business Insider. Karly, an LPN in Southwest Oklahoma, lives paycheck to paycheck to support her husband and son. She and her husband contracted coronavirus in early April; the hospital gave her a one-week grace period, but told her she couldn't return to work until she tested negative twice. Karly quarantined with her husband for a month before receiving two negative tests. She missed two paychecks while already struggling to support her family. "I'm not really sure exactly what's going to happen because we live paycheck to paycheck," Karly said. "My husband does still have a job, but I make more money than he does."
But the coronavirus has left the most vulnerable nurses without many options, exacerbating inequities that already existed. Women make up more than 90% of the registered nurse population, according to the Journal of Nursing Regulation. One in every 5 registered nurses identified as a minority, and almost 30% of licensed practical nurses, the lowest paying of any nursing role, are people of color. Since black and Latina women already make among the lowest average salaries in the US, lack of paid leave during the coronavirus can upend family finances. Many nurses have decided to leave their jobs altogether for fear of contracting the illness. A nurse from Illinois with cancer was told by her doctor going into work could threaten her life. But her employer told her that she cannot get paid time off or work from home, and that she should either come into work or quit her job. The hospital presented the nurse with an impossible decision: risk her life doing her job or quit. The nurse ultimately decided to leave her job altogether, leaving her without health insurance to cover her ten thousand dollar cancer medication. "I feel like I'm leaving my career not the way I wanted, but I feel like I have to," the nurse told Business Insider. "Nobody really cares about my safety."Join the conversation about this story »
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'I am no hero. I am not ready to die': A New York nurse reveals the anguish, fear, and heartbreak of fighting the coronavirus pandemic
KP Mendoza has been a nurse for less than two years, but the horrors of the...KP Mendoza has been a nurse for less than two years, but the horrors of the coronavirus drove him to write a will. He is 24 years old. As part of the medical team at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, which has experienced the nation's worst outbreak, Mendoza believes healthcare workers need protective gear — not hero worship. Having seen patients suffering, Mendoza is concerned by people pushing to reopen the economy and worries that the lack of social distancing will cause an increase in COVID-19 cases. He believes the United States government failed its people, healthcare workers included, with its haphazard and lackluster response to the pandemic. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories. KP Mendoza was running in Central Park last week when he was flooded by exhaustion, anxiety, guilt, and frustration. As the relentless pressure of being a nurse battling the pandemic in New York bore down on him, Mendoza began thinking about what could happen if he contracted the coronavirus. So, at 24, he decided to draft a will. Mendoza is young and healthy. But treating COVID-19 patients, wearing the same N95 mask for hours and even days at a time, forced him to think seriously about dying. It's all the worse that the US, he said, was woefully unprepared for a pandemic and millions of people have since moved on to dismissing it as a hoax. Mendoza expressed this maelstrom of emotions on Facebook. His gut-wrenching words have since been shared over 132,000 times, with people thanking him, offering prayers, and lifting him up. Overwhelmed by the attention and praise, Mendoza, a surgical and transplant ICU nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital, said that he stands by the first sentence of his post: "I am no hero. I am not ready to die." Having graduated from New York University in 2018, Mendoza, who considers himself a "baby nurse," told Business Insider that he is not looking to be a "savior" or a "martyr." "This is my first job, and I didn't sign up to die because I wasn't protected enough," he said. "I'm not here to just mitigate my own death. I'm here to do good work and to go home and come back the next day to continue doing good work." As of Thursday, New York has confirmed more than 263,700 coronavirus cases and over 19,400 deaths. Nurses around the United States have been calling on the Trump administration to increase the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) and ramp up testing so they're not caring for patients in unsafe working conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report earlier this month saying 9,200 healthcare workersnationwide have gotten coronavirus and 27 have died of COVID-19. "I've been shocked by the US's response to the virus," Mendoza said. "I didn't think it would be so lacking." 'My goal is to save them, and I can't' With elective surgeries having been called off, Mendoza hasn't seen anyone other than a COVID-19 patient since early March. One nurse usually takes care of two patients a day at Mount Sinai, he said, but the influx of patients from mid-March into April increased that tally to three patients. Mendoza is an Illinois native and the son of two nurses. He was drawn to medicine based on the belief that there's no "greater gift you can give to a person than their health." But when the pandemic hit, he started waking up sweaty, with an elevated heart rate, and filled with dread, as if his body knew what awaited him at work. "Pre-pandemic, I used to tell myself when I left the hospital that I made a difference," he said. "Now I just feel like I went to work and prolonged my patients' lives." Several patients' experiences have stuck with Mendoza: A woman in her 30s reminded him of his sister. A pregnant COVID-19 patient underwent an emergency C-section that saved her baby, but then she died. There was also a newly retired MTA worker who was counting down the days to his family's South African vacation; he and his wife were hospitalized around the same time but he was sedated when she died. "It makes me feel like I'm not doing nearly enough for these people because ultimately my goal is to save them, and I can't — not even with all of the medicines in the world, not even with the most brilliant doctors at Mount Sinai. It's completely disheartening to know that what you're doing doesn't change much," he said. 'How do you prioritize your needs when all your needs are a priority?' Swamped by this feeling of inadequacy, Mendoza turned to social media after "a particularly bad week," recalling how one of his patients nearly died at the end of his shift. "Sometimes, I get so busy that patients lie in their own stool longer than I would like to admit," he wrote on Facebook. "How do you find time to clean your patient when your other patient's heart rate just reached [zero] next door?" Mendoza rushed first to help the patient who was flatlining. "How do you prioritize your needs when all your needs are a priority?" he wondered. He also described the gut-wrenching moment when a woman, who thought her mother was stable, called to check on her only to learn that her condition had deteriorated dramatically. "So, I reluctantly but gently told her that if I stopped the IV pump right now, her mother would die," Mendoza wrote on Facebook. "I had to be blunt — why lie or sugarcoat what is happening? Uncontrollably and expectedly, she began to weep. "I have auscultated the sounds of a dying heart. But, never before have I heard a dying heart through the phone." Unfortunately, that's all too common now, Mendoza said, since family members aren't allowed to see their relatives because COVID-19 is highly contagious. So, nurses like him help connect grieving families over FaceTime — even when it's time to say goodbye. "I've had to give bad news before, but when families are at the bedside, they can see that their loved one is not doing so well," he said. "But now, you don't see anything so that news causes extreme distress." Healthcare workers are in dire need of more PPE In Mendoza's role, it's common for patients and families to heap thanks on him. And during the pandemic, that appreciation has justly been turned up several notches. Every day at 7 p.m. in New York, people clap, cheer, honk, and ring bells in honor of healthcare workers. But even as they lift his spirits, Mendoza becomes incensed by the public's wartime analogies that compare hospitals to the "front line" of the pandemic and medical workers to "heroes." People are either very sick or dying when they go to the hospital, making them the "last resort — not the first choice," Mendoza said. This is particularly true in New York where people are avoiding overrun facilities because they lack faith that they'll get high-quality treatment, and are afraid of catching the virus in a hospital setting. Also, he added, "You would not think about telling a soldier, 'You're wearing too much to go into battle, you should have less' or 'Maybe you don't need that bulletproof vest, maybe you don't need this helmet.' That's why I say, don't call me a hero. Instead, show your support by believing us when we say we need much more PPE." In terms of PPE, Mendoza said he has enough gloves and medical shoe covers, and just got a new face shield after using the older one for 17 days. The gowns, though available, tear easily and are not completely waterproof. Masks, however, continue to be a pain point. In the early days of the pandemic, Mendoza used one N95 mask for his entire 12-plus hour shift. That's been the case since the second week of April. He's taken to placing a piece of tape on the bridge of his nose, where the mask hurts the most. But in early April, a shortage of medical supplies forced him to re-use the same disposable mask for four days. He sanitized it with bleach and put the mask in a biohazard ziplock bag, which was then placed in a brown paper bag with his name and a smiley face, so it could be stored overnight, he says. "The brown paper bag is a ridiculous, feeble attempt to pretend as if we're keeping our masks clean and to make us more comfortable with reusing them," he said. Researchers have warned that the coronavirus can last for seven days on the surface of masks. Mendoza thinks he'll eventually get the virus — if he doesn't have it already Given his proximity to a hearty virus that has infected 2.64 million people worldwide and more than 842,600 people in the US alone, Mendoza is making concerted efforts to protect himself. At the end of every shift, he changes his clothes and drops off his scrubs to be laundered at the hospital before removing his shoe covers with gloved hands. Then the gloves come off and he uses hand sanitizer. After biking home, he strips as soon as he enters his apartment, puts his streetwear in the washer and his lunch box in the sink, and makes a beeline for the shower. But Mendoza's now resigned to the fact that he's either had COVID-19, currently has it, or will get it in the future. "As valiant as my efforts may be, I probably have the virus somewhere in my apartment right now," said Mendoza. He takes solace in the fact that he is "unlikely" to succumb to the coronavirus because he is young, healthy, and has no underlying health conditions, but knows that he faces an "exponentially higher" risk because of his work. It's this grim reality that pushed him to write a "skeleton" will, which has yet to be notarized but gives his "meager savings" to his parents, his plants to his mother, and postcards from his travels to different family members based on the thoughts he penned in them. "Children aren't supposed to die before their parents," he said, "so I imagine myself breaking my parents' hearts irreparably if I succumb to this virus and that's something that motivated me to really start thinking about and hashing out these details." While Mendoza faces one "painful truth" about the virus after another, it's baffling for him to see people swarming beaches in Florida, Kentucky pastors complaining about canceled services, and people protesting coronavirus lockdowns and wanting to return to work in Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, and elsewhere. 'At what cost are people wanting to reopen the economy?' Despite the grueling nature of his job, Mendoza agreed that he is fortunate to have work and not be worried about how he will pay his bills or keep a roof over his head. "I know people are suffering but what concerns me is the influx of coronavirus cases that might occur should restrictions be lifted too early," he said. "So my question is: At what cost are people wanting to reopen the economy?" The governors of Georgia, Floria, South Carolina, and Tennessee are planning to reopen as early as this week and demonstrators across the nation have been spotted toting signs, saying, "I need a haircut," "Give me liberty or give me COVID-19," and "End the virus not the economy." Meanwhile, healthcare workers have been excoriated, Mendoza said, with people saying "You signed up for it" or "You should be used to death," while conspiracy theorists claim that the pandemic is merely a hoax. "If people dying doesn't convince you that safety and social distancing are important, then frankly, I don't know what will," he said. The way Mendoza sees it, the coronavirus also exposed deep cracks in the US medical system, including high healthcare costs, insufficient medical resources, and unequal access to insurance. It also put on garish display how marginalized communities and people of color are bearing the brunt of this disease. He also expressed keen disappointment in organizations like the CDC "that are meant to set standards of excellence and standards of protection for you as a healthcare worker," but instead created faulty coronavirus tests and then provided guidance on the use of face masks — only to walk it back. "It just makes you wonder, 'Who is protecting me?'' Mendoza asked. "We're the ones protecting people from the virus and treating them, but, as a healthcare worker, who's treating me? If it's not the government, if it's not the CDC, then who?"Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Inside London during COVID-19 lockdown