More healthcare workers are looking to unionize post-pandemic

Workers are looking for better working conditions after a brutal few years.
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Amelia Kinsinger

4 min read

After facing harsh workplace conditions while caring for Covid-19 patients at the height of the pandemic—such as working 24-hour shifts without adequate protective gear—a rising number of healthcare workers are looking to unionize.

In 2021, 13.2% of healthcare workers were unionized (so that’s about 2.4 million people). That number hasn’t changed much in the past 12 years, according to a December 2022 study published in JAMA from Harvard and the University of Washington researchers. But amid “crisis levels” of worker burnout post-pandemic, experts are starting to see an increased interest in unionization.

“During the pandemic, we were getting a couple of leads a week. We’re now getting eight to 10 leads a day from all over the country about folks needing to join a union,” Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), a California-based union that represents more than 16,000 healthcare workers, told Healthcare Brew.

Not only are more healthcare workers unionizing, but there’s also more union activity since the pandemic, including several high-profile strikes. Thousands of nurses in New York City went on strike in January 2023 after failed negotiations with Mount Sinai Hospital and Montefiore Medical Center.

“The pandemic made people look at their jobs and whether or not it was worth it for the time they’re putting in and what they’re getting out of it,” Renée Saldaña, a spokesperson for SEIU-UHW, a California-based union that represents over 100,000 healthcare workers, told us.

On the rise

Pandemic-related unionization efforts took off as Covid cases started to stabilize and workers had more time to organize, Rosselli said. There’s not yet comprehensive data on how many more healthcare workers have either unionized or made efforts in the last year, but according to data from NPR, the number of petitions for union representation in the healthcare field saw an uptick starting in 2020.

Several hospitals have unionized or started the process to unionize in recent months, including the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, and California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

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SEIU-UHW expanded its executive board and executive committee because of the rise in numbers in its membership, Saldaña said. It’s also seen a rise in strikes and other union activity.

“For eight years, there were no strikes, and then in the past year and a half, we’ve been through five strikes,” Saldaña said.

At least 30,000 healthcare workers went on strike in 2022, according to data compiled by Healthcare Dive.

There’s also a rise in other types of union activity, such as picketing and “marches on the boss,” which is when workers gather and approach their boss with demands, Saldaña said.

Priorities, priorities

The top priorities of healthcare unions haven’t really changed because of Covid, but the issues have become more serious, Rosselli said.

Pre-pandemic, safe staffing levels were “already a priority in collective bargaining,” he said, even more so than wages and pensions.

But then, “the pandemic comes, and folks experience and even more extreme…horror stories,” Rosselli said. “People working 24-hour shifts, forced overtime, et cetera.”

Short staffing is “definitely a much bigger issue” now than it was pre-pandemic, Saldaña agreed.

“It was always an issue, but now it is the primary issue for healthcare workers in California,” she said. “It’s just harder to recruit healthcare workers…into the healthcare system after they’ve seen the risks that healthcare workers were forced to undergo over the past three years.”

Beyond staffing, at the top of the list of NUHW priorities are adequate personal protective equipment, regular Covid testing, and a voice for healthcare workers in how care is given, Rosselli said.

Since the start of the pandemic, “healthcare workers are extremely riled up,” Saldaña said.

“They’re feeling like they have been forgotten, and that employers are trying to move on and make everybody forget about the pandemic and everything they’ve been through,” she said. “And they’re like, ‘No, we’re not taking this anymore. We deserve more.’”

Navigate the healthcare industry

Healthcare Brew covers pharmaceutical developments, health startups, the latest tech, and how it impacts hospitals and providers to keep administrators and providers informed.