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CT nurses’ call for mandated staffing ratios gains early legislative support

Melody Rueangrung from Middletown, CT who is a nurse, holds up a sign that says "Unsafe staffing means unsafe care" at a rally for safe staffing for health care workers outside of the Capitol Building in Hartford, Connecticut.
Ayannah Brown
Connecticut Public
Melody Rueangrung from Middletown, Conn., who is a nurse, holds up a sign that says, "Unsafe staffing means unsafe care," at a rally for safe staffing for health care workers outside of the Capitol Building in Hartford, Connecticut.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal and state Sen. Saud Anwar, co-chair of the Public Health Committee, proposed legislation on Monday to mandate nurse-to-patient staffing ratios at the state and federal levels.

“Before the pandemic, we were stretched,” said Anwar, a Democrat from South Windsor. “After the pandemic, we are in crisis. Health care workers and nurses are burned out. This is a crisis rapidly moving toward disaster, and this disaster is preventable. If you don’t have adequate staff, people die. You increase the risk of medical errors. The status quo is unacceptable.”

The lawmakers were at the state Capitol in Hartford for a gathering of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union, which represents doctors and nurses, urging elected officials to act.

“Safe staffing takes profits away from Hartford Health,” said Randi Weingarten, AFT president. “That is why they do not want it. Safe staffing takes profits away from insurance companies. That is why they do not want it. They are not going to do it on their own.”

“I think we can get 60 votes in the Senate,” said Blumenthal, D-Conn., adding that the federal proposal has whistleblower protection. “I think the House may be uphill. Connecticut can help lead the way.”

Nurses talked about being assaulted by patients and mandated by some hospitals to work 16-hour shifts.

“My assault could have been avoided had we been safely staffed that night,” said Crystal Badeau, a patient care technician and vice president of WCMH United Employees, AFT Local 5099. Badeau was talking about a night that she and a colleague took care of 29 patients between them. She said an irate patient “started scratching me, hitting me, punching me and cussing at me” because he had been made to wait for his coffee and asked to put on slipper socks when standing up on the hospital floor.

“We get patients that are violent quite often,” Badeau said. “How would you feel if your mother, daughter, sister, brother, husband came home with bruises or stories [about] being touched inappropriately? All we want to do is make sure our patients are safe, well cared for — but at what price?”

Sherri Dayton, a registered nurse at Backus Hospital and vice president of health care, Local 5149, said she was going to turn 49 this year and was doing a 16-hour mandated shift.

“I’ve watched nurses cry in the break room, or in the med room or in the nurse’s station,” she said. “And I’m tired of seeing a profession that I love literally being destroyed, and people quitting because of it. I’ve seen nurses get disciplined because they refuse [mandatory work] because they have to go pick their child up from day care. And if they don’t, they’re going to get DCF called on them.”

According to the Healthcare Staffing Shortage Taskforce Report released in December 2021, 1 in 5 health care workers have quit since the start of the pandemic.

Between 2020 and 2021, the number of registered nurses in the workforce declined for the first time in more than five years. This included a loss of 100,000 RNs under the age of 44. Health care workers have faced increasing mandatory overtime and on-call hours.

On the supply side, there is a nurse faculty shortage driven in part by low pay for these roles compared with other roles in clinical settings available to nurses with advanced degrees. With an average monthly loan payment of $544, many qualified nurses cannot afford to take a pay cut.

The AFT nurses cautioned that the issue is a matter of patient safety: Data showthat adding just one patient to a nurse’s workload results in a 7% increased risk of 30-day in-hospital mortality; a 48% increased risk of a child being readmitted to the hospital within 30 days; and increased risk of infection.

In response, the Connecticut Hospital Association’s Paul Kidwell told Connecticut Public Radio that it would be bad policy to mandate staffing levels. Many patients come through the ER and then require inpatient care. If hospitals can’t meet government-mandated nurse staffing ratios on inpatient floors, they would be forced to close beds on those floors. That would back up care in the ER, “potentially delaying care for patients that require inpatient care,” Kidwell said.

In a statement to Connecticut Public Radio, MaryEllen Kosturko, chief nursing officer at Hartford HealthCare, said: “We recognize our teams have endured some of the most difficult times in health care. This is why Hartford HealthCare has put in place a robust recruitment and retention strategy. We are also working with local schools and universities to offer our nursing colleagues reduced cost educational opportunities and enhanced tuition reimbursement programs. Hartford HealthCare created a Nursing Peer Support 24-hour hotline that has been well-received by colleagues. We have immense gratitude and take tremendous pride in our nurses and the significant role they play in the lives of so many patients every day.”

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.