By the first day of the strike under the banner of “Patients Before Profits” on March 8, the hospital’s 800 registered nurses had already had enough. Now, adding insult to moral injury, Tenet has posted 100 positions for permanent replacement (a move decried by Massachusetts Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, Representative James McGovern, and community leaders). The RNs decided in large membership meetings to stick together and repeat their demands.
At issue is Tenet’s refusal to agree to dip into its fantastical profits to fund a limit on the number of patients who could be assigned to one RN at a given moment. At issue is patients’ safety. “While health care workers rose to the occasion to provide the best care they could—using all their knowledge, creativity, and strength under shamefully difficult circumstances—their hospitals’ owners did not,” according to MNA President Katie Murphy, RN.
For two years, beginning well before the pandemic, the nurses signed thousands of reports of unsafe patient conditions; signed petitions to management, gave testimony of patients’ suffering, and then delivered an overwhelming vote of no confidence in Tenet executives, as the hospital’s owners remained unmoved.
“Our nurses have been sacrificing for our patients, families, and communities throughout this pandemic,” said Dominique Muldoon, RN, who worked on the Covid floor during the first surge and who cochairs the union at St Vincent’s. “We have moved out of our homes and isolated from loved ones.… [We] have witnessed unbearable suffering and been the only ones with patients, or been the conduit with families as they watched their loved ones die. [T]his is our duty. All that we ask is to be treated with respect and to be given the resources required to care for our patients and ourselves.”
Rather than fund the demands of frontline caregivers, Ronald Rittenmeyer, the CEO of Tenet, the national for-profit owner of the hospital, was quoted in the Dallas Morning News boasting about plans to use furloughs (yes, furloughs in hospitals during a pandemic), cuts in retirement benefits, and funding from the CARES Act to “improve their cash position.”
After receiving more than $2.8 billion in taxpayer funds during the pandemic, Tenet cut staff and suspended its contributions to non-union hospital workers’ 401(k) accounts. This was after the company posted a pandemic profit of $414 million—with more than $97 million in profits for the first quarter of 2021 alone—and saw it stock nearly triple in price, going from $21.76 at the beginning of the pandemic to a high of $64.77 as of May 25.
St. Vincent’s Hospital itself reported $355 million in profit between 2014 and 2019, with a 2019 profit margin of four times the average for hospitals in Massachusetts.
This is a vivid illustration of the MBA adage, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Across the nation, corporations are pocketing taxpayer pandemic bailouts to “improve their cash position.” Hotels are using this crisis to cut staff, as they have used past crises, making the reduced staffing the new normal when volume returns, and wrecking housekeepers’ bodies by making them clean more rooms than can be done without injury. But in the hospital industry, pandemic profiteering is especially contemptible.
St. Vincent’s nurses are not alone in reporting that their hospital kept scheduling lucrative non-urgent elective procedures during the height of the pandemic, while receiving federal funds that were supposed to make up for the postponement of those very procedures to conserve staff and PPE.
A name has been given to the trauma health care workers are enduring: moral injury.
They bear scars of knowing what their training and experience teach them about how to care for patients, while they see “negative patient outcomes,” repeated “near misses,” and preventable deaths. They live with the guilt of having to make decisions on how to ration their time running from one patient to another, knowing all the time that those decisions mean that some patients will inevitably fall through the cracks.
Often a stunned nurse sits in their driveway after a shift well over 12 hours, because, though RN mandatory overtime was made illegal in Massachusetts, it happens frequently. One such nurse, Liz Irwin, describes mandatory overtime as “kidnapping”.
Caitlin Duckett, RN, recalls, “I vividly remember looking in the mirror putting on scrubs before work as though I was putting on battle gear, making a choice to risk dying. When I would come home, I would take my shoes off outside. I wouldn’t let my 3- and 8-year-old daughters or my husband or father near me. I would go straight to the shower and the washing machine, and then I’d stay in a separate room. My kids would knock on the door and talk from the doorway. I was terrified when our 3-year-old jumped in my bed with me in the middle of one night. She couldn’t understand what was going on.”
If nurses who worked straight through the worst pandemic in over 100 years can be permanently replaced over waging a strike for the most basic demands, then electing a Democratic president who issues videos that support workers clearly isn’t enough. There should be an immediate congressional investigation, with House and Senate members subpoenaing Tenet’s CEO Rittenmeyer, asking him to account for every penny of the $2.8 billion in taxpayer dollars the company received, and then to explain how that money was used to “improve” the company’s “cash position” while continuing to ignore frontline nurses’ basic demands.
This weekend, as striking nurses are now being threatened with being replaced, the union is asking all who can to contribute immediately to their strike fund. Says MNA’s Katie Murphy: “If you and your friends are within driving distance of St. Vincent’s in Worcester, come join the picket line from 7 am to midnight seven days a week until victory.”
This strike is a strike for every worker in the country. At a time of grotesque profits across the USA, including in Massachusetts, nothing short of all-out solidarity is required.