A labor dispute at a hospital is much different than a labor dispute at a corporation. While the grievances of striking nurses might be similar (poor working conditions, low pay, etc), the ramifications are much more severe, even deadly.
Patients still need care – so hospitals must find a way to keep the hospital running. Some hospitals do this by bringing on travel nurses to fill these positions. Here’s what you need to know about working at a striking hospital.
One travel nurse, who we’ll call “Anne”, shared her experience about covering a shortage during a labor strike in Minnesota. Fortunately, she had already been licensed in Minnesota and was recruited to begin work within a few days. The credentialing process happened quicker than usual since the hospital was desperate for help.
At first, she struggled with feeling like a “traitor”. Her fellow nurses were on strike, demanding safer work environments, better nurse to patient ratios, and increased pay. As nurses, we are all familiar with these issues. That’s what made the choice to take over their shifts so difficult. It felt like she wasn’t supporting them the way she should.
She was only able to get past these feelings by thinking about the patients. She didn’t want them to become innocent casualties of the labor dispute. In the end, she realized that for her, patients would come first. This has always been the core model of the inpatient and outpatient setting.
By ensuring quality patient care was met, she felt she was acting professionally and morally responsible.
In addition, the time and money the hospital must spend in increased staffing costs and administrative headaches is a powerful incentive for them to quickly seek an agreement with the staff nurses.
Over the last decade, there have been 24 major labor strikes involving nurses. These disputes often involved a collective bargaining agreement or labor contract which was up for renewal. The longest of these lasted 29 days.
Negotiations on these multi-year contracts can break down when two sides aren’t able to come up with an acceptable compromise. At that point, the union will hold a vote on whether or not to strike. Sometimes, the hospital will initiate a lockout to gain a more favorable bargaining position.
Unions and hospitals are legally required to give notice at least 10 days in advance of a strike or lockout. This gives both parties a deadline to negotiate an agreement or make arrangements for patient transfer and continuing care with the use of temporary staff.
During the strike, nurses do not receive any pay. Unions advise their members not to use vacation or sick time either. Some unions may maintain strike funds in order to support their members during the strike, but these distributions are normally quite small.
For nurses like Anne who choose to provide care during these tension-filled times, the experience can be rather difficult, and at times, overwhelming.
When she arrived in Minnesota, the staffing company arranged for buses to pick up groups of travel nurses and drop them off at their hotel. The bustling environment resembled a work camp and had essentially been turned into a travel nurse processing unit.
For the next two days, they were administering drug tests and physical exams, processing I-9 forms, completing continuing education classes, and being prepped for their first day of work.
On that first day, the travel nurses arrived at their designated hospitals via bus. As Anne rode to work on her bus, all she saw outside were picketers in their red shirts. As the travel nurses passed by, the strikers shook their heads and fists at them.
At first, it was overwhelming to ride past the strikers each morning, but after a while, it became easier. The patients would occasionally ask questions, but the travel nurses had been given scripted responses to use by the hospital administration.
This helped the nurses maintain a diplomatic stance and avoid added stress to the patients.
During a strike, safety is a top priority. Tempers can flare and the frustration from both sides can lead to a dangerous environment if you’re working for a strking hospital. Here are a few tips for maintaining your safety:
Working as a travel nurse to provide coverage during a nursing strike is actually pretty tough. Most hospital staff nurses are used to working 3 shifts a week with 4 days off. During a strike, the hospital is desperate for help. Travel nurses often have to work 6 twelve-hour shifts per week. Some agencies make you sign a contract requiring you to work 72 hours a week. This means you may only get one day off!
Needless to say, nursing exhaustion is a definite worry.
It can feel like you’re just living and breathing work during your assignment. You don’t have much time to do anything but eat, sleep, and work. But the increased pay may be significant enough to allow you take several months off at the end of the assignment.
There is no clear length of assignment since strikes are open-ended. Some travel nurses end up having their contracts canceled by the end of orientation because the two sides have come to a last-minute agreement.
Or they could last much longer.
Anne flew to Minnesota thinking she would only be there for 1 week, but ended up being there for 4 months. It financially made sense to stay, so her boyfriend had to fly out to visit her every other weekend. Even at the end of a strike, some nurses end up quitting and do not return. So the hospital may offer an extended contract to the travel nurses at the same rate as strike coverage.
It’s important to stay in close contact with your travel company while working the strike so you’re not incurring any expenses that won’t be reimbursed. It should be noted that most strike travel contracts have some sort of guaranteed compensation.
Though controversial, working a strike travel assignment has its benefits. Because of the high demand, you may make more in two days than you would in an entire week. The base pay will be slightly above the normal wage, but the overtime may be double or even triple the normal rate.
On the other hand, you may be faced with an environment that is short-staffed and even hostile.
While strike work isn’t for everyone, it may be something to consider if you have a large expense coming up. Some nurses have managed to make enough for a down payment on a house, a wedding, or even a child’s college education with just one assignment.
As an in-demand nurse, you are in control of your career. Hundreds of travel nursing opportunities are available now with a schedule you choose and the benefits you want.
Sophia Khawly is a traveling nurse practitioner from Miami, FL. After attending Florida State University for her BSN, she went on to complete her MSN at the University of Miami. She was featured in Glamour Magazine’s Top 10 College Women of the Year in 2010 and enjoys sharing her experiences and advice on her blog, TravelingNP.com.