By Suzy Hughes
As an LAUSD parent and registered nurse of 18 years, the UTLA strike left me frustrated that our labor and district leaders seemed to be looking through a 1980s lens to address the 21st century needs of our students – specifically the need for more school nurses to ensure that our kids’ learning is not hindered by health issues.
In the three decades since the last teachers strike, everything from demographic trends to technology to workforce realities and employee expectations has changed. Nevertheless, UTLA leadership looked back 30 years to benchmark what could be gained.
UTLA’s call for an increase in the number of school nurses was one demand that the union seemingly won from the strike. The new agreement adds 300 new positions over the next two years. I have my doubts, though, that a significant number of the new positions will ever be filled. Even before the strike, there were over 30 fully funded school nurse vacancies across the district. If LAUSD could not fill those 30, what makes us think they can fill another 300?
I am certain that being a school nurse is rewarding. The schedule may be attractive for some who like the holidays and long vacation breaks. The only other position with a similarly attractive schedule is hospital shift-work. Comparing the salaries, though, shift-work definitely wins out. Right now an RN with a few years of experience can earn what an experienced school nurse maxes out at -- around $80,000. On top of that, hospitals across the country are recruiting nurses in Los Angeles and offering big sign-on bonuses and incentives. I was recently offered a $30,000 bonus to take a position in North Carolina, where the cost of living is far lower.
The sign-on bonuses are indicators of the nationwide nursing shortage, which has been anticipated for years. Both the nursing workforce and the general population, which is increasingly older and sicker, is aging into retirement. The demand for nurses is increasing across the board. Compounding the shortage brought about by this demographic shift is the lack of institutional capacity needed to reverse the trend. Nursing faculty are aging out of the workforce, too, and not enough RNs are moving into nursing education to take their places.
What does that mean in the context of L.A.’s job market? It means registered nurses aren’t hard-pressed to find well-paid work, so filling those additional 300 positions (not to mention the pre-existing vacancies) isn’t going to be easy.
What if an RN isn’t motivated by salary and is interested in making the jump into school nursing? That switch will require an investment of time and money. Obtaining a School Nurse Credential requires a post-baccalaureate certificate (almost half of California nurses only have an Associates Degree) from one of only four programs in the state. The career change will require at least a year of full-time coursework with a price tag of $10,000 to $20,000.
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to suggest that LAUSD school nurse isn’t a hot job in 2019 given all of the options out there for RNs.
This illustrates one of my greatest frustrations coming out of January. This union “win” of more positions isn’t a guaranteed win for our kids. Addressing the issue of adequate resources for student health needs via contract negotiation is not enough.
The negotiations took place in the context of an outdated labor/district relationship that our leaders -- both union and district -- don’t seem to have the will to redefine into a partnership that indisputably puts L.A.’s public schools and kids first. If the negotiations were instead conducted in the climate of pragmatism, collaboration and innovation, looking critically at 21st century constraints and possibilities, perhaps instead of 300 new positions covered by the UTLA contract, there could have been different investments made that would ultimately be better for our schools.
The district says it’s devoting substantial energy to fill these positions, but to compete for qualified candidates, LAUSD also needs to follow the lead of other employers with significant financial incentives. The salary needs to be competitive. Sign-on bonuses should be considered. Student loan repayment or tuition assistance programs could be offered. Enterprising recruiting is needed. However, those strategies cost money, which is in limited supply. These investments would leave less to spend on salaries.
The crisis created by the strike superficially illuminated this under-resourced area in our schools. Unfortunately, the negotiations called only for the one solution that would seemingly create more jobs for UTLA to represent. Unless things change before the next contract is negotiated, I fear that the mud will again be slung with accusations that still-vacant positions are a sign of a broken promise instead of the reality that it was a promise near-impossible to honor from the beginning.
Few parents will be aware of the national demographic, economic and market forces that the nursing profession identified years ago and still hasn’t been able to address. They will just know that their school doesn’t have a full-time nurse and look for a bad guy to blame.
They’ve been told that the bad guys are at Beaudry and behind charter school doors. They were led to believe that January’s labor action was an epic battle against the evil district in a fight about “what’s best for our kids” instead of about the jobs and job protections that unions exist to safeguard. The anger will feel justified and energizing to some, but our kids will have gone three more years without meaningful change.
What we really need are contingency plans to address the needs of our schools in the absence of full-time nurses. We need to identify where the health needs are greatest and assign RNs accordingly. Perhaps the routines and responsibilities can be reorganized in a way that enables one nurse to do more in the same amount of time. At the very least, other school staff should be strongly encouraged to obtain basic CPR/First Aid training.
What is not okay is simply waiting for the jobs to be filled without urgently figuring out mitigating actions to deal with the realities of the nursing shortage, which this new UTLA contract won’t fix.
This is just one dissection of the promises that were made by the district under duress. I can’t help but wonder what other opportunities were missed because our collective vision is handicapped by looking backward instead of forward.
--- Suzy Hughes, MSN, RN is an L.A. native and has been a Registered Nurse for 18 years. She has two children who attend LAUSD schools in Venice.