How Nurses Went From Saving Lives to Saving Health Care

Tonia Bazel didn’t want to strike during a pandemic, taking time away from the patients on the infectious disease floor where she works. Nevertheless, she and the other nurses at Albany Medical Center in New York took to the picket line on December 1. They had been bargaining for two years following their vote to join the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) in 2018, and although wages and benefits had been the source of their initial concerns, conditions during the Covid-19 crisis had become the focus of their action. As a second wave of the virus began to wash over the state, they went on strike to demand better protective equipment and safer staffing levels.

“Staff have been leaving,” Bazel explained, adding that their departures have only exacerbated the conditions that prompted them to leave. “The hardship at the bedside has become more stressful for those who are staying. More of us are getting sick.”

Of particular concern has been the continued rationing of personal protective equipment. Months into the pandemic, Bazel said, “the mask I’m wearing, the surgical mask, I can find in Walmart all day long. So I’m trying to figure out why I’m rationed to one for a 12-hour shift among Covid patients.”

In her 24 years as a nurse, Bazel said, she’s gotten used to the fact that nurses are rarely asked what they need to do their jobs well, whether it’s more PPE or improved staffing levels. She’s used to being treated as though she’s replaceable, as though the institutions would rather push out experienced nurses like her and hire newer, cheaper staff instead. But as the caseloads crept up and she went to work day after day in a reused mask she considered unsafe, as more of her colleagues were out sick with Covid-19, and as the hospital refused to budge on nurses’ demands for improved conditions—even though those conditions would offer better patient care—it became too much. She and her colleagues decided to strike.

“Every time I walk in, I’m at risk of bringing something home,” she explained. “Everybody fears that, but administration doesn’t. They never have to enter the floor.”

Bazel is one of millions of health care workers doing their best to save lives despite conditions that are difficult at the best of times. Nurses like her have long been the difference between life and death for scores of people, yet their work has often been undervalued and their expertise dismissed. Now, it is nurses like her who are leading the outcry against the inadequacies of the American health care system, challenging us to think about the ways our crumbling patchwork of private institutions propped up by public funds has left us vulnerable to the virus.

The Albany nurses struck for one day as planned, carrying signs that declared, “All I want for X-mas is PPE!!!” and “Protect Nurses and Patients!” At the end of 24 hours, the hospital refused to let them return for two additional days. In a press release, it defended its record: “Safety is Albany Med’s top priority. The Medical Center follows all federal and state PPE guidance and maintains an adequate supply of PPE.” Nonetheless, the nurses have continued to organize, meeting regularly while awaiting the results of several Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaints.