Future of Us: Applauded during the pandemic, now nurses want to be heard

A woman poses for a portrait
Kelley Anaas poses for a portrait in front of union picket signs at the Minnesota Nurses Association headquarters in St. Paul on Thursday, Feb. 16.
Ben Hovland | MPR News 2022

This story is part of a series called “The Future of Us,” exploring how a pandemic, a murder and a city on fire have changed us and our path forward.

In November 2020, Kelley Anaas begged Minnesotans to stay home for Thanksgiving during one of the state’s daily COVID-19 briefings.  

“Up until nine months ago, nurse was my only professional title,” said Anaas, a registered nurse and union representative in Minneapolis. “Suddenly I had earned a new designation: frontline worker. Honestly, I've always found this name laughable, as it implies that there's a second line of us waiting in the wings. Minnesota, we are your only line.”

Today, the virus is better managed, but that line of defense has become thinner.

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The overall job vacancy rate for hospitals and health systems more than tripled between 2021 and 2022, according to the Minnesota Hospitals Association. And the problem could compound.

Of nearly 500 nurses surveyed who left their jobs last year, more than 70 percent identified short staffing as their reason for leaving, according to a report the Minnesota Nurses Association released earlier this month.  

Who’s to blame for the staffing shortage remains a point of contention.

The nurses union points to profit-minded executives; meanwhile, hospital leaders say they’re struggling financially. Regardless, the pandemic pushed nurses to speak up in ways they might not have before. Anaas included.

“When I spoke at the press conference in November of 2020, I felt a sense of obligation to say, ‘Don't. What we're seeing is real and there might not be a bed for you if you're not careful,’” she said in a recent interview with MPR News.

“Moving forward, as the experts in the care that we give at the bedside, we are making sure that we take that obligation of speaking up and using it in all the ways that we can to advocate for patient safety, for our own safety in the workplace."

As part of that advocacy, Anaas became a union shop steward at her hospital. She is also working to pass a bill that would require Minnesota hospitals to include frontline workers in decisions about nurse-patient ratios. This effort follows a nurses strike in September and the threat of one in December.

A person holds a sign that reads "Safe Staffing"
Nurses picketed outside Children’s Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis in Sept. 2022.
Ben Hovland | MPR News 2022

“We talk a lot in society about self-care,” Anaas said. “And so much of that got put back on the frontline workers, like, ‘You're going into the hospital with this unknown virus that's killing people and that's hard, but also make sure you're taking care of yourself while you take care of everybody else.’ I think that we have to find a way to take care of the caregivers.”  

Anaas said she believes a system that takes care of the caregivers is one where listening to them is built in. A system like that, she said, will be less likely to be “caught flat-footed” the next time it’s tested by an emergency.

Hear the full Future of Us conversation with Anaas using the audio player above. Find coverage of hospital staffing and finances here.