That was the question I posted online and in only two hours 3,900 nurses from all over the country responded.* A reporter had asked for my opinion, and I was seeking their input. Of that number, 3,100 nurses thought that they should receive hazard pay because of:
- unprecedented stress
- understaffing in a pandemic
- working without the correct PPE equipment
- the military gets combat pay – so we should too
- organizations do not care about us
- Or as one nurse put it “Because I signed up to heal the sick – not die in the process.”
The 800 nurses who disagreed made some strong counter points:
- we are not the only ones in danger – so are all the other support roles
- fact: nursing is a dangerous profession
- who do you think is going to pay for hazard pay?
- this is part of our professional role and we knew the risks going in
- I never once thought of asking for hazard pay during the AIDS epidemic
After seeking popular opinion, I started digging for facts. Over 735 healthcare workers have died thus far from COVID-19. The Guardian decided to collect and tell every one of their stories in “Lost on the Frontline”. Look at their faces; know their stories. We have lost nurses, respiratory therapists, doctors, nursing home staff, pharmacists, transporters – as well as a nurse and physician to suicide. Heartbreaking.
Contrast this to AIDS where we knew how the disease was transmitted and could protect ourselves. Fifty-seven healthcare workers in the United States were documented as having seroconverted and of these 26 developed AIDS. Another 138 workers contracted HIV infection without a reported risk factor. (US Dept. of Health and Human Services 2001). COVID-19 which is constantly mutating, probable transmissible airborne, and has already infected over 77,800 healthcare workers.
But after much thought, I do not believe that hazard pay is the answer. I think the very question distracts us from the real issues which are:
Why did so many healthcare workers die?
Why do nurses experience a lack of respect? (Because 3100 feel they deserve something more.)
I believe most (if not all) of healthcare workers died because of a lack of the proper PPE equipment. The CDC did not have our back, and neither did our organizations. Science didn’t suddenly change overnight – six months ago any nurse would have been written up or fired for re-using a mask for a week or not using the proper mask. This should infuriate every nurse.
And the positive vote of 3,100 nurses demonstrates that nurses do not feel respected/appreciated. It’s not that nurses do not deserve hazard pay, but hazard pay is temporary, and doesn’t solve the underlying problem. For example, if police officers or firemen are hurt on the job, benefits kick in, while nurses are taking their own sick/vacation time after being asked to self-quarantine. Employers must provide benefits if we are hurt. And hazard pay won’t change that.
Hazard pay feels more like being offered a candy bar when you were hungry for a meal – who could refuse? But in just asking the question I found that nurses are starving – for respect: for a country that values them enough to provide the right equipment, adequate staffing and compensation when they are out of work due to COVID; for organizations that care enough to provide hotels so that nurses do not infect their families.
To be called a ‘hero’ and given hazard pay in the face of all this feels like a “there…there” pat on the hand to a profession that deserves a standing ovation. One traveling nurse in NYC sent 40 of her own patients to the morgue in 20 shifts. Did anyone ask her what she needed during that time…counseling, solace, a mental health day…..lunch? Don’t call us heroes. Show respect by acknowledging what we need as skilled professionals to fight this battle and then give us those resources NOW.
*Survey on July 6, 2020 in Show Me Your Stethoscope; A Nation of Nurses
Kathleen Bartholomew, RN, MN, is an internationally recognized patient safety and health culture expert. Kathleen has spoken on leadership, communication, patient safety, and peer relationships to hospital executives and nurse leaders for twenty years.
All of her books come from her passion to understand the stories of nurses. Her books, “Ending Nurse to Nurse Hostility” and “Speak Your Truth” illuminate our relationships with our peers and physician partners. She is also co-author of “The Dauntless Nurse” which was written as a communication confidence builder.
Kathleen is also a guest Op Ed writer to the Seattle Times and has been interviewed twice on NPR’s “People’s Pharmacy”. Her Tedx Talk calls for changing our belief system from a hierarchy to equality in order to keep our patients safe – and also explains how disaster thrust her into ‘the best profession ever’.