Around 47 million Americans voluntarily left their jobs in 2021, a trend that’s been deemed the “Great Resignation.” Many workers are quitting in search of higher pay, better work-life balance, and more autonomy on the job. And nurses are no exception. Around one in five healthcare workers quit last year as well.
Jade, 24, always told herself she would quit her position as an ER nurse if she ever lost her compassion. She eventually followed through on that promise when the COVID-19 pandemic made it too difficult to do her job. Her real name and job title are not being revealed for privacy reasons, but she says she has been working as a nurse since she was 20.
She originally liked working in the ER. “It’s kind of a balance of high chaos, and then you recover,” she said.
But the pandemic changed her outlook on life and her career. By March 2020, the nature of her job had changed dramatically. Like most nurses, she didn’t have the luxury of working from home. She went to work with few safety regulations and infection mitigation guidelines in place.
“We got overrun pretty quickly, and there was no sign of it stopping,” Jade said. “It was really hard to not simultaneously be angry with people who didn’t take the pandemic seriously and would question us as we tried to care for them.”
For Jade, the joy of nursing went away. She decided to quit and got another job as an ER nurse at a different hospital, but she quickly ran into the same problems she was trying to escape. She came to the conclusion that taking on a new role in the hospital wouldn’t necessarily help her situation. The problems created by the pandemic were systemic and widespread.
One day, she found herself balancing two patients in the ICU, another patient with COVID-19 and a fourth coming in on an ambulance.
“I had to take a moment in the supply room that day to cry, honestly, because it’s really hard to find out where you should split your attention when you have four patients, two of whom are critically ill,” she said. “That’s when I decided I needed to find a less stressful job.”
In August 2021, she left the ER all together and started working as a primary nurse for a cardiologist by the fall. She initially decided to quit because she thought it would give her more freedom, but she soon realized quitting is often the only power a worker can yield.
Her new position comes with set, regular hours – 8 AM to 5 PM – instead of the 12-hour shifts she was accustomed to in the ER. She also didn’t have to work nights, holidays, or weekends.
“I enjoy the work that I do,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot more about cardiology, and I like nursing. So, learning about it is a plus in my book.”
But it came with trade-offs as well. She took a $5/hour pay cut and she’s now the only nurse in the office, which comes with a different kind of responsibility. She also doesn’t have sick days and instead has to use paid time-off when she can’t come into work.
“When I first started this job, I didn’t know I had asthma at the time, but I got pretty sick and I had to be out for a week before I had started accruing PTO,” she said. That means she started with a negative balance of PTO. When she got COVID earlier this year, she also had to take PTO for the five days she had to quarantine.
She isn’t happy with her new job and would love to find another position, but she can’t afford to lose her current health insurance, especially as she continues dealing with her own medical issues.
The cardiology office comes with better working conditions than the ER, but the same underlying problems haven’t gone away.
“A lot of folks tossed around the idea that workers, especially nurses and other healthcare workers, would have a lot of power right now because we are in such high demand. That is absolutely not true,” she said.
She recently received an invitation to apply for a travel nursing position that would pay twice as much per hour as her current salary.
“If workers’ power is having as many job offers as you could want, then yes we do” have power, Jade said. “But if that means being able to have more time off than I do on shift if I want to work in the ER, or being able to be sick without being worried about being fired, then we do not have that.”
Lately, she has been telling her friends with high-paid nursing positions to stay in their roles, because “there’s nowhere else to go.”
“I either have one place where I have solid 12-hour shifts, don’t have to worry about staying late — but also you don’t have a lunch break. You eat if you have time and if you don’t, well, you don’t,” Jade said. “Or I can go to another place where you do have a lunch break, but you’re gonna have to try and balance the job of two people for 12, maybe 13, hours.”
She said the only thing that would give nurses actual power is more unions. She got interested in organized labor after learning that some nursing unions have protected lunch breaks and safe patient ratios.
“We talk, we know that this sucks, we all bitch about it to each other, but we all know that there’s nothing that we can do,” she said. “So that collective action, I think, seems to be pretty powerful in places where it works.”