This week we interviewed an ICU nurse from the Denver area to get their thoughts on the course of the pandemic and opinions about trends in nursing and healthcare employment. They were very eager to speak their mind, but they opted to remain anonymous.
Vivian: Tell us a little bit about yourself. How long have you been in the ICU and how long have you been at your current job?
ICU RN: I have been a nurse for 7 years and have spent the last 3 working in the ICU. The ICU I work for is a heavy medical ICU with a smattering of cardiovascular patients, as well as some complicated post-surgical patients. Prior to working in the ICU I worked in a step down unit.
Vivian: Did you leave your current job at all in the last year to travel?
ICU RN: No. My manager would only let me take a leave of absence if I became PRN and I couldn’t lose my benefits. I didn’t want to leave my job completely because I love the team that I work with.
Vivian: Do you currently have COVID patients in your unit?
ICU RN: We had almost 50 COVID patients last spring and currently have three COVID patients in the unit. A week and a half ago- we had none. The patients we have currently were not vaccinated and are quite sick.
Vivian: As reports are released that the pandemic is improving, how do you think this has changed our healthcare system? Are you worried about the Delta variant and the spread?
ICU RN: Truthfully, I don’t think we are coming out of the pandemic, I think we are diving back in head first. I suspect within the next 30-60 days we will see mask mandates return as the unvaccinated population contributes to the spread of the variant and the original virus. We just had the MLB All Star game here in Denver and I am concerned that we are going to have a huge spike in our community. I did not see one person with a mask on when I was out in downtown last week, and compared to our current vax rates- there should have been more people in masks. Even among healthcare workers, there is vaccine hesitancy due to concerns about efficacy and long term effects.
I think we are about to see another nationwide surge- and this concerns me. So many nurses have left the bedside or gone to travel in the last year, I am not sure we have enough caregivers to absorb such a rapid increase in census again. So yes, I am very worried and very concerned about a re-emergence of the virus and being put through another round of working in hospitals at max capacity.
As far as what we have learned during this pandemic, I think the nation’s eyes have been opened to how important nurses and allied health staff are at the bedside, versus the traditional belief that doctors do most of the work. I think nurse’s have realized their own value and are starting to demand what they deserve and advocate for themselves with hospital administrations. We have seen that our healthcare system is not prepared for an overwhelming amount of patients. This pandemic has clearly underscored the importance of hiring more nurses as RNs leave due to burnout or reaching retirement age. We cannot continue to expect nurses to perform like heroes without the appropriate support.
Vivian: Are you happy at your current job? If not, have you thought about leaving within the last 3 months and why?
ICU RN: I will say, I love my co-workers, they are the reason I show up for work. But, man, it has been tough watching travelers make 2-4 times the amount I was making over the last year. Something HAS to change in the perm staff world. Nurses have been underpaid and understaffed for years, decades even. If we continue to hemorrhage staff nurses, the whole country is at risk for overstretching their healthcare workers and having no one to care for them.
I actually have been doing some research on other options for employment. I don’t think I can travel because I have a young family and my partner is committed to his job in the Denver area. But, there are a few local agency jobs here that pay almost $10/hour more than what I am making as a staff nurse in a unit that I have worked in for 3 years. I have 7 years of nursing experience and my co-workers with 1-2 years are only making $2 less per hour than myself. I have gotten less than $1 in raises since I’ve started working here, and frankly, that’s just unacceptable. And, that wasn’t due to any performance issues on my part, the hospital decided they would just skip raises last year.
I truly think that the changes needed in healthcare, specifically the value placed on nurses and their role in hospital reimbursement, needs to start at the top, at a federal level. We deserve more compensation and fair, safe staffing ratios.
I cannot continue to work in a unit that forces me to live paycheck to paycheck. Denver is becoming one of the most expensive areas to live in the US and, unfortunately, the nursing pay is horrible.
Vivian: Any thoughts on where you most likely will go?
ICU RN: I am looking at the local agencies in the Denver area. I want a place that has the same sense of teamwork that I experience now, but with livable pay. I am also looking at changing specialties to reduce my stress levels and hopefully avoid burnout
Vivian: What do you think employers can do to increase retention rates and entice healthcare workers to come work for their organization?
ICU RN: PAY THE NURSES. Stop trying to fool nurses with this bonus pay, incentive pay, task pay, or whatever administration wants to call it. Increase our hourly pay, show us you give a crap. Taking that even further- enough with the bonuses that require 2-3 years of commitment. That feels like a trick to nurses- they should be frontloaded with half of the bonus, no strings attached.
Additionally, we need to pay nurses like the way we pay the rest of America. Do you know nurses don’t get paid for holidays like Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Easter, Washington’s Birthday- or any federal holidays. We only get holiday pay on Memorial Day, Labor Day, 4th of July, Christmas Day, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve(but only after 11pm), New Year’s Day, and Thanksgiving.
It’s time we be treated fairly, and facility administrators can help us advocate for that instead of lining their own pockets. Nurses have been given the opportunity to have a voice and we need to make sure what we are saying is loud and clear.