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Pittsburgh hospital workers say short staffing and low pay is causing burnout, survey finds

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

A new survey paints a bleak picture of life for hospital workers in Pittsburgh.

Among the report’s starkest findings: 26% reported not feeling safe at work, 15% had suicidal ideation, and 20% said they cut or skipped meals due to low pay.

The survey of more than 2,200 current and former hospital employees in the city was conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work. The work, which was funded by Pitt, the Heinz Endowments and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, was done at the request of recently inaugurated Mayor Ed Gainey’s transition team back in February.

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“Hospital workers have never been more important, and yet they’re leaving their jobs in droves,” said Angel Gober, transition team co-chair. “We hope this survey will give workers the chance to tell the mayor and the public what it will take to turn things around.”

Workplace violence

Of the workers who quit, 43% cite the violence or verbal abuse they experience from patients, and more than half of those surveyed said they experienced verbal abuse from patients or patients’ families.

These confrontations are not unique to Pittsburgh health care workers; according to National Nurses United, nurses report increased rates of violence since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In June 2020, Gov. Wolf signed a bill to strengthen penalties against those who assault health care practitioners and technicians. In Wisconsin, it recently became a felony to even threaten a health care worker.

No voice

“One of the things that workers reported consistently in our conversations through the survey is that they don’t have a lot of voice in decisions that are made around their jobs,” said the Pittsburgh report’s lead author Jeffrey Shook.

That’s concerning in part because many respondents are also worried about patient safety. The survey found 62% of workers said that staff work longer than is good for patient care, and about half of those who quit cited an inability to deliver quality care as the reason.

When asked for comment from Allegheny Health Network, which operates two hospitals in Pittsburgh, a spokesperson said they would be unable to respond as they haven’t yet had time to review the report. UPMC has seven hospitals in Pittsburgh and did not respond to a request for comment.

Low pay

The report also highlighted the economic insecurity many workers experience – 62% report living paycheck to paycheck, 13% report not being able to pay the rent or mortgage on time, and 34% said they had medical debt.

The last is somewhat surprising since many workers receive medical care from the same hospital systems where they’re employed, and are insured through the parent companies that own either UPMC or AHN.

Policy suggestions:

The Pitt researchers included a handful of recommendations that prevent turnover and improve workers' lives.

  • Ensure adequate staffing, which requires addressing the working conditions that are driving hospital workers to leave.
  • Address worker safety so that the psychological toll of caring for people who are suffering is not compounded by the trauma of violence and threats.
  • Provide sufficient time off to prevent burnout and support workers’ well-being.
  • Guarantee access to physical and mental health care. 
  • Give workers a voice in the decisions that affect their working conditions and ability to care for patients.
  • Pay livable wages so that the stress of hospital work is not intensified by the stress of struggling to make ends meet.
Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.
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