LANCASTER — Registered nurses at Antelope Valley Hospital are taking their complaints about chronic understaffing public, holding a vigil Thursday night to bring attention to what they say is a concern for patient safety.
To make up for a lack of available nurses to fully staff the schedules in recent months, nurses are being asked to work beyond their scheduled shifts and there are no staff to cover breaks, said Maria Altamirano, a registered nurse and chief nurse representative at Antelope Valley Hospital.
“It’s basically not enough bodies, not enough nurses,” she said.
The problems began in the September-October timeframe, Altamirano said, and have continued through the winter flu season.
“It’s just gotten to the point where the nurses are just so exhausted,” she said. “They’ve been working far too many hours.”
Nurses represented by the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United have been in contract negotiations with Antelope Valley Hospital administrations since November, and staffing is one of the main issues under discussion.
“This is a different administration that we’ve been dealing with and it’s pretty different than what we’ve had in the past,” Altamirano said.
The hospital’s current chief executive officer, Edward Mirzabegian, was named to the post in January 2019. He had previously led Antelope Valley Hospital from 2007 to 2013.
The hospital is meeting the nurse-to-patient ratios as mandated by state law, but is doing so by keeping nurses on duty longer, reassigning personnel usually scheduled specifically to cover breaks to patient care or by pulling charge nurses — meant to have a supervisory role during their shifts — into regular patient care, Altamirano said.
“No breaks, no charge, no resources for our nurses. That’s pretty dangerous,” she said.
Antelope Valley Hospital officials could not be reached for comment Friday.
The problem is not one of turnover in staffing, Altamirano said, but that the hospital has had problems in recruiting nurses, even the traveling nurses brought on to work on a temporary basis.
Those nurses, who have other job opportunities elsewhere, are also being turned off by the understaffing conditions and choosing not to work at Antelope Valley Hospital when opportunities arise, further compounding the problem, she said.
“Proper break coverage is absolutely vital,” registered nurse Ruth Godde, a member of the bargaining team, said. “Nurses who are staffed to cover breaks or provide an extra resource are constantly asked to stay past their regular shift, or are pulled to assist the understaffed floor.”
The nurses union is also asking the hospital administration to address safety issues for the nursing staff, who are subject to violent attacks from patients. The problem is especially acute in the mental health unit.
The hospital has seen an increase in mental health patients, and opened a separate emergency unit for such patients.
“We see more and more violent attacks on our nurses,” Altamirano said, including one nurse who was chocked and knocked unconscious, leading to long-term neurological problems and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Understaffing is believed to contribute to this issue as well, and the union is seeking as part of its contract negotiations to establish a workplace violence plan and committee to address it.
The nursing staff would like the administration to use their input in creating programs dealing with patient care, something that has not been done consistently.
“We’re the ones dealing with the patients day in and day out, and have the experience at the bedside,” Altamirano said.
“The important thing, as nurses at Antelope Valley (Hospital), we live in this community, we understand the needs of our community and when we address an issue when it comes to patient care, all we ask is for our administrators to listen and to understand that we have solutions, we can provide solutions to this issue,” she said. “Somehow, there has been a block in communication.”