The public calls front-line nurses health care heroes. Yet, I have never felt so underappreciated or devalued in my profession. As I continue to engage in this so-called “war” against COVID-19, I enter the battlefield unarmed and without backup. I call out to my hospital, nursing union and local government, searching for a policy that includes hazard pay for front-line nurses, but no relief is on the way.
If the physical and emotional toll of working amid a pandemic parallels the front lines of a war, why am I not receiving compensation for the additional risks of my hazardous conditions? The U.S. Department of Labor defines hazard pay as work duty that causes extreme physical discomfort and distress, which is not adequately alleviated by protective devices and imposes physical hardship. I believe that my bruised face from strapping on N95 masks for hours at a time and prolonged emotional distress cover the basis of their definition. Although I did get vaccinated, my role as a front-line COVID intensive care nurse continuously places me in high risk, high exposure situations. Extreme moral distress and empathy fatigue are inevitable while in combat against a yearlong pandemic. Yet, despite any formal change in policy to enact hazard pay, I continue to put on scrubs and deliver the care that my patients need. Being a nurse is what I signed up for, right?
But how much hardship must front-line nurses endure before our voices are heard? My previous neuroscience ICU was transformed into a COVID unit overnight. I have continuous, direct and prolonged contact with infected patients. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these are known risk factors for contracting COVID-19. With more than 62,000 nurses employed in Washington state, we are all putting our physical health on the line every time we clock into work.
A recent study in New Jersey showed a 7% greater absolute risk for health care workers than non-health care workers to contract COVID-19 due to exposure to infected patients. Each week, the hospital implements new protocols from ever-changing data as it tries to protect our staff best, but will it ever be enough?
During critical personal protective equipment shortages, I have stored my N95 mask in plastic Tupperware containers between reuses. Each time, I was meticulously placing it back on my face, hoping that I did not cross-contaminate myself with the virus. In both the U.K. and U.S., front-line health care workers who reported reusing PPE had a 46% increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Other forms of respirators were not only being reused in my hospital, but we discovered we were using expired filters, for which we presented allegations to the state Department of Labor & Industries. Additionally, the Washington State Hospital Association recalled more than 2 million fraudulent N95 masks. Previous studies show that health care workers with inadequate PPE are associated with a 31% increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Continuous exposures due to faults in our supply of PPE exacerbate the necessity to provide hazard pay.
The uncertainty of high-risk exposure and the possibility of infecting my family is a constant, looming threat. I worry about what will happen if I get sick. There is no hazard pay policy or monetary fund to protect nurses if we succumb to the virus. We are forced to use accrued sick leave or personal time off unless it can be proved the exposure and illness occurred in the workplace. I want a hospital and a state that value me enough to provide the right protective equipment and adequate compensation for the risks within my job. I hope for an organization and community that care for me the way I have cared for them. Instead, I am left alone, bleeding on this battlefield.
Legislating hazard pay is about more than the money. It is about recognizing the increased risks and physical hardship front-line nurses encounter every day. So, next time you want to thank your health care heroes, rather than another street sign or Air Force flyover, offer a policy that necessitates hazard pay. Show us your full support as we fight this relentless battle.