COVID-19 Crisis Sidelines Some Nurses, Creating Financial Hardship

In early April, Dayna James, an emergency room nurse in Miami, was working on her laptop when she realized she needed $400 to renew her elective board certification in emergency nursing — money she didn’t have. James, 40, a married mother of four, had already deferred car payments and dipped into savings. Her husband, who works in the travel industry, was still working but had seen his income drop dramatically. James had applied for unemployment, but the state rejected her because she had worked one shift in the span of 10 days, she says.

Despondent, James — who has been taking care of other people for two decades, as both a parent and nurse — quietly wept. She had 17 years of nursing experience but found herself mostly sidelined when COVID-19 hit because the hospital she works for stopped doing elective procedures and cut her hours. Meanwhile, health care workers around the country responded to the pandemic. Many nurses and other health care workers suddenly found themselves on the front line of the COVID-19 crisis, while others had to stay at home.

James submitted an online application for a grant from the Emergency Nurses Association, a professional organization that has 50,000 members nationally and overseas. The ENA approved her for a $599 grant — enough to help relieve some of the financial pressure she was facing, James says. She was on the ENA website to look up information about getting her recertification when she saw a notice about the grant program. The ENA created the grant to help members who are encountering financial difficulties related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was so grateful (for the grant),” James says. “I didn’t have enough income to pay for my emergency nursing recertification, I didn’t realize it had lapsed. Paying for groceries was a struggle. The grant helped.”

[See: Myths About Coronavirus.]

Since the COVID-19 pandemic slammed the U.S. in March, many thousands of nurses have been working long hours taking care of COVID-19 patients. Some have come out of retirement to pitch in.

But many others, like James, found their lives and their finances disrupted by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. The children’s health system James works for cut her hours because patients weren’t coming in for elective procedures, she explains. Many hospitals suspended most elective procedures — like surgeries to treat mild h eart problems and orthopedic issues — to promote social distancing and blunt the spread of the virus. The hospital’s patient volume was cut in about half, which meant the facility had less work for nurses, James says.

“I found myself in the position of being very experienced, qualified and willing to provide care (to COVID-19 and other patients), but not having any hours,” James says. She asked friends in the health care industry whether they knew where she could pick up shifts; no one had any leads. She inquired at three other area hospitals.

“Nobody was hiring at the time,” James says.

Some of her relatives had a hard time understanding why she wasn’t working much during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak. Some family members, including her mother, live in Pennsylvania and were consuming lots of news about how hospitals in New York and New Jersey were dealing with the COVID-19 crisis in the early spring. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo publicly asked retired nurses to break out their scrubs and come to the Empire State to pitch in.

“It was hard to explain to my family members why I didn’t have work from one week to the next,” James says.

The ENA launched the COVID-19 Relief Fund to help members who were facing financial difficulties associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, says Mike Hastings, president of the ENA.

[Read: Unsung Heroes Fight the COVID-19 Pandemic.]

Shortly after the pandemic hit, Hastings heard from and about numerous nurses who were in situations similar to the one James faced. As hospitals stopped doing elective procedures to prepare to treat COVID-19 patients, many nurses found their hours cut significantly.

“During the pandemic, we still have our bills to pay,” says Hastings, who works as a nurse at a hospital in the Seattle area. The aim of the fund is to help alleviate some of the financial stress nurses are facing during the pandemic.

Losing shifts isn’t the only way nurses have lost income during the outbreak. When schools closed to stop the spread of the virus, many nurses had to scramble to pay for child care.

The relief fund was launched with $200,000 in seed money from the ENA Foundation. To apply, ENA members fill out a brief application online in which they describe what they need the funds for. In addition to the seed money, donors have contributed another $67,000. As of early July, the ENA has disbursed 374 grants totaling $224,000.

Hastings, 42, is a working nurse who understands firsthand the challenges caused by the pandemic.

When schools closed, Hastings and his husband, a local fire chief, had to scramble to find child care for their two young sons. “My day-to-day job involves running an emergency department in a hospital near Seattle,” Hastings says. “I didn’t have the option to leave the boys in an office near the emergency room. I really needed somebody to watch them and take care of them so I could focus on my work.”

Hastings and his husband found a local YMCA that provided child care. They also paid for a paraeducator to see the boys — who have special needs — once a week to help them with their schoolwork.

[Read: Speech-Language Pathologists Join the COVID-19 Front Lines.]

James’ situation, meanwhile, appears to be turning around.

Two weeks in a row, she got two shifts instead of one, and she’s heard that her hospital plans on returning to normal staffing levels soon.

James will be returning to a fuller workload as the rate of infections is rampaging in Florida, particularly in Miami.

Within Florida, Miami-Dade County has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases, the Miami Herald reports. As of July 8, the county had 53,974 confirmed cases and has been recording an average of 1,868 new infections on a daily basis for the past two weeks.

Recently, James has treated COVID-19 patients and anticipates working more in the weeks and months to come.

She looks forward to returning to a fuller work schedule, but wants people to do all they can to avoid becoming infected with the virus.

“I dedicate myself to caring for my patients in my community,” she says. “I ask that we continue to wash our hands and maintain social distancing to keep everybody safe.”

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