Nurses struggle with staffing shortages, low pay as colleagues leave in droves

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Nurses struggle with staffing shortages, low pay as colleagues leave in droves
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Three North Shore hospitals — Beverly Hospital, Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester and Lahey Outpatient Center in Danvers — have lost 322 nurses, or 40% of their staff, in just the past two years, and over 100 in the past five months, reflecting a dire case of a broader statewide trend.

“It’s exhausting. You feel like you’re being pulled in 10 different directions,” said Arianna Marquis, a nurse who has worked on one of Beverly Hospital’s medical-surgical/telemetry floors for 11 years. “I’ve been getting migraines from overstimulation with the alarms, the heart monitors, trying to juggle five things on my list at once.”

Marquis pointed to several factors leading to the staffing crisis, which began before the pandemic. The hospital has been hiring new grads to take the place of the seasoned nurses leaving, but because of the staffing shortages, staff have had to take these new grads out of training programs early, further slowing the staff down as they continue to train them on their own.

Nursing assistants, typically charged with tasks like helping incontinent patients or checking vitals, are also in short supply, further stretching nurses to pick up the slack.

“The patient care is unfortunately suffering because of that,” she said, adding that remaining nursing assistants have been assigned to tend to 30 patients at once, instead of the typical four to five.

She added that the low pay staff at her hospital receive — 11% to 16% less than nurses at other local Massachusetts Nurses Association-represented hospitals, according to the organization — is further exacerbating the crisis, leading seasoned nurses to leave.

“It’s a huge loss for us, it’s a huge loss for the hospital,” she said. “If we had better staffing and better wages, I believe many of those nurses would still be working with us.”

Larn Beard, a Special Care Nursery RN at Beverly Hospital, said the staffing problems in her infant care unit were so bad this past weekend, she said management started asking doctors if the infants should be transferred to another hospital. Eventually, two nurses stepped up to fill in the gaps.

“Last night, I was ready to resign, because I am just so fed up with fighting the same fight with our managers for safe care, even in the special care nursery,” she said.

The nurses’ union has engaged in negotiations for months with management for a contract that will increase pay to match area standards, increase staff and prevent excessive overtime.

In response, Kim Perryman, RN, chief nursing officer at Beverly and Addison Gilbert Hospitals, said in a statement that the pandemic, including the omicron surge, “has been taxing on every member of our team,” she said, saying she is “grateful” for the efforts of the staff “and recognize(s) that this pace is unsustainable.”

She added that, in the most recent wage negotiations, the system offered a three-year wage increase of between 18% and 30% based on seniority, as well as a “significant” reduction in health insurance contributions.

This crisis is not just happening on the North Shore. The Baker administration said in December that statewide staffing shortages have led to a reduction of 500 beds and called for a reduction in nonessential procedures.

Deb Falk, ED nurse and MNA co-chair at St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford, said her hospital has lost over 200 nurses over the past few years, beginning pre-COVID.

“The patients have been sicker, obviously, with COVID, and nurses are exhausted,” she said. “Our nurses are broken. Some have told me they feel hollow inside.”

Although she said that seasoned nurses are paid below market rate, new hires are being offered large sign-on bonuses.

“They’re putting more money into new hires that don’t have the experience,” she said. “We need new nurses, they’re our future, but you need your seasoned nurses.”

The Massachusetts Hospital Association’s Vice President of Clinical Affairs, Patricia Noga, said in a statement that its members “are addressing (the issue) on a daily basis.”

“We are continuing to collaborate with our network of professional organizations, academic partners, and state leaders to ensure that we are developing a strong next generation of health care professionals,” she said.

Brigham and Women’s in Boston has begun addressing the crisis by adding 240 variable positions in the past year and hiring 340 travel nurses, according to a spokesperson.

MNA President Katie Murphy, an ICU nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, called out the failure of a 2018 ballot measure that would have instituted mandatory staffing ratios at hospitals as an exacerbating factor of the crisis.

Having more time to help patients walk around and receive individualized attention can decrease patients’ risk of pneumonia, blood clots, bedsores and more, she said.

“We get you out of the hospital healthier and faster,” Murphy said. “If that had passed, and hospitals had much more robust nurse staffing in every hospital, the pressures, the challenges, the outcomes, could have been drastically improved through this pandemic.”

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