Frontline health care workers stressed by job and employer demands

Former critical care nurse Debbie White now heads a health care workers union with 14,000 members across New Jersey. She describes mounting stress on frontline medical staffers caring for COVID-19 patients. She says that some fear to speak out about alleged unsafe working conditions, scarce protective gear and employer intimidation.

“They’re worried for their jobs, frankly,” White said. “They’re the troops. They’re frontline troops. They’re fighting a battle and they need to be heard.”

She recounts health care workers who, when faced with an employer shortage of PPE, or personal protective equipment, brought their own face masks to work.

“They were pulled aside in the hallways and told, ‘Take the mask off or you can go home. Take the mask off or you’re going to be disciplined. Take it off. It’ll cause hysteria and panic with patients,'” White said.

Citing “ongoing conservation” due to PPE scarcity, a memo dated April 6 from Robert Wood Johnson — an underwriter of NJTV News — instructs health care employees they will get just one so-called procedural mask for an entire work week, unless it becomes “soiled or damaged,” and that they must store it in a paper bag.

“That’s crazy,” White said, “and unsafe. And what they’re doing is a recipe for exposure. Those masks were not meant to have been used for a week.”

A spokesperson from RWJ Barnabas Health responded, saying, “On Wednesday afternoon we were notified of the delivery of 48,000 surgical masks. With this delivery, we comfortably returned to daily masking effective, Thursday, April 9. We understand the weekly mask policy, although it was in compliance with CDC guidelines, made some team members feel uncomfortable and for that reason, we are very pleased to return to daily distribution. The safety of our team members and patients remains our number one priority.”

Ironically, as administrators and workers argue over safety protocols, leaders at health care facilities overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients say their biggest problem is extreme staffing shortages. University Hospital’s emergency room issued a dire SOS last Saturday.

“We called every agency and staffing agency possible to try to get folks. We weren’t getting what we needed. Then EMS heard about it and they responded in a really heroic way. Everyone who wasn’t on duty, wasn’t in the field at that moment, showed up,” said Dr. Shereef Elnahal.

But frontline workers’ generosity of spirit can wither when faced with some employer demands — like a recent consent form from one Hackensack Meridian hospital informing staff they’ll be “reassigned to work […] for the foreseeable future to cover the needs of the hospital […] 12 hour or 6/6 split shifts, days, nights and weekends.” The company says the form “has been eliminated because it was misconstrued.”

Staff shortages are so bad statewide, White claims, that even workers recovering from COVID-19 face enormous pressure to return quickly to their jobs.

“They’re worried about discipline. They’re worried about their jobs. They’re choosing to handle it with their employers,” she said.

The Murphy administration didn’t take sides.

“I assume somebody has to be doing something really bad if you’re a health care worker right now to be cut from the team because we are literally diving on every loose ball we can find,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at the daily press briefing on Wednesday.

“When I was a nurse, sometimes I was the loudest voice criticizing or complaining as well when I didn’t think we had enough staff or if things were not going right. So, again, I have a lot of empathy for both sides of the equation. And I just think we’ll all just have to stick together and we’ll get through it,” Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said.