The Potluck

Nurses say bad management, not COVID-19 burnout, to blame for exodus of workers

By: - March 31, 2022 3:01 pm

Amy Forkner points to a report from the Minnesota Nurses Association that found poor management was the most common reason nurses quit over the past two years. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The union representing thousands of Minnesota nurses says poor hospital management and chronic under-staffing — more than COVID-19 burnout — are causing nurses to leave the job in droves.

“I didn’t leave, I escaped,” said Amy Forkner during a Thursday news conference, pointing to the new report published by the Minnesota Nurses Association called “Why We Left.

The report disputes the common assumption that the COVID-19 pandemic is the primary reason why nurses are leaving bedsides and not returning.

The Minnesota Nurses Association, which represents some 22,000 registered nurses across the Upper Midwest, surveyed 748 nurses who left the job over the past two years. The most common reason cited among those surveyed was “management issues,” followed by short staffing and then the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 80% of those nurses surveyed said they would not return to work in hospitals unless conditions improved.

The report offers a window into one sector of an economy going through the so-called Great Resignation, during which millions of Americans are switching jobs or careers in search of better pay and working conditions.

Even after working as a nurse for nearly 30 years, Forkner said she didn’t plan to retire anytime soon. But constant cost-cutting and poor management made her shifts as a surgical nurse at St. John’s Hospital both chaotic and heartbreaking.

“I had a patient that was in the ER for over 18 hours because we couldn’t get him on a surgical schedule,” Forkner said. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,’ …  I knew it wasn’t my fault. But he wasn’t going to get an apology from anybody else.”

She said after Fairview combined three hospitals into one, their surgical supplies were put two floors down, forcing her to get out of her scrubs and race down two flights of stairs to retrieve surgical tools.

“(I took) literally 25,000 steps a day running up and down stairs to get my supplies for my patient,” Forkner said. “Leaving an intubated patient on the table… It broke my heart.”

A shortage of nurses during the pandemic has forced hospitals to pay premium wages to traveling nurses to fill in the gap. Earlier this year, Gov. Tim Walz directed $40 million of federal aid to temporarily hire nearly 300 nurses. The state ultimately agreed to pay an agency $275 an hour or more for nurses. Elsewhere, health care facilities have called on elderly nurses to leave retirement to work on COVID-19 units.

The Minnesota Nurses Association says the chronic understaffing at hospitals is a management decision driven by profit-seeking, not a result of a labor shortage. They pointed out that Minnesota now has the most registered nurses in state history — 120,000 — with 14,000 new registered nurses entering in the past three years despite the pandemic.

“There’s not a shortage of nurses in the state of Minnesota. That is a misconception,” said Becky Nelson, a nurse and chair of the union’s government affairs committee.

“The shortage comes when the nurses that we have in the state don’t want to work in a hospital under these conditions,” Nelson said.

The union released the report as it’s pushing lawmakers to pass a bill that would limit how many patients a nurse is responsible for. The “Keeping Nurses at the Bedside Act” (SF 3027) would also fund mental health programs for health care workers; expand the state’s loan forgiveness program; and, pay for the Department of Health to develop violence prevention strategies to protect nurses.

“We’re being used up physically and emotionally,” Nelson said. “We are not robots. We are not heroes. We are not angels. We are highly skilled professionals and we are people. We need to be treated as such.”

The Minnesota Hospitals Association acknowledged hospitals are short-staffed, noting that there are roughly 1,800 open nursing positions at hospitals and health systems across the state.

The group says it supports expanded funding for tuition reimbursement and mental health resources for workers but rejects the need for minimum staffing requirements.

Patient needs are constantly changing, and COVID-19 has reinforced that flexibility is needed at the bedside,” Minnesota Hospital Association spokeswoman Maddie Renneke wrote in a statement.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.