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'Nothing to do with the pandemic' | Former nurses explain why they left jobs

A new report is shedding light on why hundreds of Minnesota nurses decided to leave the field and some say COVID wasn't to blame.

ST PAUL, Minn. — A panel of former nurses from different Minnesota hospitals including Hennepin Healthcare, Abbott Northwestern, the University of Minnesota Medical Center, and others, met at the State Capitol Thursday to explain why they left their jobs.

"With the combining of three hospitals into one, our surgical supplies were put two floors down," said one nurse who retired in December. "So literally 25,000 steps in a day, running up and down stairs to get my supplies for my patient...Our patients deserve better."

"Unfortunately the response did not have the seriousness that was needed to respond to the concerns that we were continually bringing up," another former nurse added.

Their experiences are not isolated, according to the Minnesota Nurses Association's 2022 Nursing Workforce Report. MNA says it surveyed 748 nurses and says the top two cited reasons for leaving were hospital management issues and chronic short-staffing. 

MNA says shortages aren't happening due to a lack of registered nurses. In fact, it says the number of registered nurses in Minnesota increased over the past three years, bringing the total to around 120,000: the highest ever recorded in the state. Citing a 2021 MN Board of Nursing report, MNA also says the number of newly graduated registered nurses has increased over the pandemic.

"So, it's the staffing plan that hospital management build a budget around every single year," MNA nurse staffing specialist Carrie Mortrud said.

Other reasons survey respondents reported they left included working conditions, stress or burnout, family factors, closures or reductions, and personal safety. About 14% of respondents reported they left because of the pandemic.

The group is calling on lawmakers to pass the Keeping Nurses at the Bedside Act, which they say would solve issues hospital systems created years before the pandemic began.

In response to the report, the Minnesota Hospital Association released a statement saying the state is facing an unprecedented workforce crisis in health care, which they say they're working hard to address. The Association says it opposes MNA's push for state legislation that would mandate nurse-patient ratios. A spokesperson also cautioned those interpreting MNA's survey results to be mindful of the context that the nurses’ union represents less than 20% of all nurses statewide.

Minnesota Hospital Association statement:

"Minnesota’s hospitals and health care systems continue to be in the throes of a historic global pandemic, and we want to recognize all members of our care teams and our health care heroes who have worked so hard for the last two years to serve our patients and communities. 

There is no question that Minnesota, like other states in the country, is facing an unprecedented workforce crisis across all the members of our care teams – which we are working very hard with lawmakers in both parties to address. In particular, we have been asking the state to invest new financial resources into sustaining and developing Minnesota’s health care workforce – and we are pleased to report that we are seeing progress at the Capitol on some of the proposed solutions. 

There were thousands of open health care positions before the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Minnesota, and one in five health care workers have left their jobs since the pandemic started. DEED estimates that Minnesota has 40,000 open health care positions. Currently, there are thousands of nursing positions open in the state of Minnesota. We recently surveyed our members and found that more than 1,800 nursing positions are open at hospitals and health systems alone.

Where MHA has significant differences with what MNA is pushing is the idea of the state passing any mandates regarding nurse staffing and creating a ratio where a nurse would have a set number of patients assigned to them. Patient needs are constantly changing, and COVID-19 has reinforced that flexibility is needed at the bedside. Staffing and caring for patients are about more than the number of RNs, but rather the entire care team - each of whom brings a unique skill set in serving patients-- team members like nurses’ aides, respiratory therapists, physical therapists, pharmacists, and physicians. 

After 20 years of pushing this legislation around the country, the National Nurses United union has still only successfully passed a nurse-to-patient staffing ratio in one state, California. Minnesota continues to outperform California and most other states in the country on our quality measurements as repeatedly validated by the federal Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research (AHRQ) and the independent Commonwealth Fund. It would also be extremely costly for the taxpayers. This bill would cost $61 million – including hiring 188 new state employees.

The pandemic has placed enormous pressure on everyone in health care, and there are things that legislators can do right now to help address workforce challenges --- which are not unique to Minnesota. We invite the MNA to work together with us to advance legislative solutions. These include: 

  • Pass meaningful frontline worker pay for health care workers, broadly defined to include both those with direct contact with COVID-19 patients but also health care workers in the lab, janitorial, and food services, to name just a few. 
  • Support expansion of the loan forgiveness program. MNA has suggested $5 million for nurses. MHA would support that but would also like to include other health care professionals who are critically important members of the care team. 
  • Support additional mental health funding potentially with a grant program targeting the mental health needs of health care providers. 

We ask legislators to continue working on the immediate workforce issues we are facing --- growing interest in health care careers, expanding the pipeline of workers in training, and helping us keep health care professionals in Minnesota with an enhanced loan forgiveness program and immediately passing meaningful frontline worker pay for health care workers."

Twin Cities Hospitals Group statement:

“We have seen the unique toll that COVID-19 has taken on health care workers across the globe. The health and wellbeing of healthcare workers and our patients is our top priority and we are working tirelessly to close the staffing shortage that exists across all of health care.”

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