Yale Daily News

As the Yale New Haven Health System emerges from the brunt of its battle with coronavirus, it faces another challenge — an ongoing shortage of nurses.

The health system has a “very, very large volume” of open positions, Melissa Turner, senior vice president for human resources at YNHH, told the New Haven Register. Turner attributed the challenges to the increasingly taxing job of being a nurse, as well as to a nationwide labor shortage

Nurses who served during the COVID-19 pandemic encountered numerous patients on ventilators and risked their personal safety to treat patients infected with the highly contagious virus. Now, as local case rates lower, the health system has seen a greater influx of patients as a result of elective surgeries that were rescheduled earlier in the pandemic. These patients are often in a worse condition than usual after putting off procedures for multiple months or years, Turner explained.

Two nurses spoke to the News on the condition of anonymity due to fear of loss of livelihood. They were told by hospital Human Resources not to speak to the media about the issue, according to the nurses. The News could not confirm the veracity of this statement. Media Relations Coordinator for YNHH Mark D’Antonio attempted to connect the News with hospital leadership, but ultimately did not answer multiple requests for comment. He said that no frontline nurses or other hospital staff would be available for the story.

“Working during COVID made them realize that it might not be worth it to be near all that sickness for those long hours for the amount of pay,” one nurse said. “They are just getting burnt out. It is not the hospital or Yale’s fault.”

According to Beth Beckman, chief nursing executive for YNHH, burnout is a major issue among nurses. She cited a survey by the American Organization for Nursing Leadership that showed that 75 percent of nurse leaders saw the emotional health and wellbeing of staff as a major issue.

With the increased workload wrought by the pandemic as well as fewer nurses, Beckman said that YNHH had to ask many nurses to work more hours. She said that nurses have “raised their hand” to make sure patients receive care and added that the hospital has adapted its operations as the pandemic has progressed.

“Our mantra and our real commitment is to take care of our people,” Beckman said. “Our frontline. And I think the most important thing we’re going to do in this space is to listen to their ideas. They commonly have the solutions and to institute them in a way that’s helpful to them. So we absolutely are committed to making sure the frontline helps us modify whatever it is we need in our work environment.” 

According to Beckman, the nursing shortage is nationwide. She said that hospitals are facing the same operational challenges nationally, and probably globally.

Still, Beckman added that the hospital system had a large number of tenured staff who stayed throughout the pandemic and have weathered the increased visits beyond it.

“We’ve had many, many nurses choose to stay, and we are so grateful for their loyalty,” Beckman said.

The hospital system did terminate the employment of 11 nurses who would not receive a COVID-19 vaccine, out of the more than 7,200 nurses the hospital employs. But Beckman noted that nine of them were casual labor, not holding full time or part time positions. She said that if they got the vaccine they would be re-employed. She also emphasized the importance of all nursing staff and said that “even losing one is something that we’d like to avoid.”

According to Patricia Carson, the director of perioperative services for the Nuvance Health Network spanning hospitals in Western Connecticut, the nursing shortage is “not a new issue.” There has been a larger issue of nursing schools lacking teachers to pass on the skills required for such a technically demanding job. This forces schools to limit the number of candidates they are able to accept.

“Operations have not been directly affected,” Carson wrote in an email to the News. “We have managed through the efforts of the employees and administration to quell the effects of the national nursing shortage. Patient care is still the utmost priority and we are delivering.”

Carson noted that the shortage prompted her to work with her colleagues from inpatient units to ensure the continuation of effective nursing care. To increase nursing retention and recruitment, her team has implemented strategies ranging from nurse residency programs for new nursing school graduates to Zoom recruitment fairs.

Carson also said that the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on nurses may have caused some to retire early. 

But while some nurses were turned away due to higher workloads during the pandemic, others opted to take on better-compensated and more flexible paths in the industry. 

One nurse at YNHH said that nursing was “not about the money, but has become about the money.” During the pandemic, some former frontline nurses became travel nurses to pay off mortgages in short periods of time, as travel nurses are known to earn higher pay. 

“I have student debt for both me and my daughter and I could use that money,” one nurse said. “It is not sustainable though. They will have to come back at some point,” another nurse added.

To cope with the shortage, YNHH has embraced creative recruitment options. YNHH also worked with nursing schools in the state and the Connecticut Hospital Association to allow senior students to join the workforce. 

Yale New Haven Health also distributed five percent bonuses in May 2020. But due to pandemic-driven financial losses, the hospital system’s annual performance incentives were one percent instead of their usual two percent. Managers showed their appreciation for hospital staff in other ways, including a “week of gratitude,” in which they spent two hours each day walking rounds with staff members, Turner told the Register. 

Yale New Haven Health is the second largest employer in Connecticut.

Correction, Nov. 9: An earlier version of this story included that one source did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The story has been updated to reflect that one source did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

Update, Nov. 9: This story has been updated to include comment from Beth Beckman.

Dante Motley is public editor for the News. He was previously managing editor, and prior to that he covered Black communities at Yale and in New Haven. He has also served as an Associate Editor for the YDN Magazine and worked on "The Yalie" podcast. Dante is a senior in Grace Hopper College majoring in anthropology.