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Striking Nurses: Ethical Disaster?

Authored by Lexi Waite

Art by Joyce Wang

To strike or not to strike? This is a question many healthcare workers face today. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the disparities in the healthcare system have been amplified. All around the country news outlets are reporting from multiple hospitals and clinics about healthcare workers striking for better working conditions. These strikes are, however, not without their ethical quandaries: Is it more important for nurses to remain in the hospital with inadequate working conditions or should they join the picket line in hopes of a better future, at the detriment of patient care? 

Disparities in the healthcare system that came to light during the pandemic have yet to diminish and nurses are beginning to strike as a way to advocate for safer working conditions. Nurses from a strike in Mount Sinai, New York, discussed the overcrowded nature of emergency rooms, reporting having to, “pull down the rails of stretchers to squeeze between them” [1]. These nurses also touched on the shortages of medical supplies, stating that due to, “a shortage of poles for intravenous fluid bags, nurses sometimes have to hang the bags from walls and curtains” [1]. More recently, news outlets have been interviewing nurses that are contributing to the picket line. In August, nurses from Rochester, New York, went on strike for better wages and better staffing [2]. “We don’t have the consistency of a base, core of staff nurses. Not just staff nurses but experienced staff nurses,” one nurse stated [2]. Similarly, nurses from a strike in New York City pointed out many issues that have been hindering their ability to provide quality patient care: “one nurse in the emergency department is responsible for 20 patients instead of the standard three patients” [3]. 

There is no doubt that nurses are fighting to improve hospital conditions for themselves and for their patients. Nurses are short-staffed and overworked, decreasing the quality of care that their patients receive. By going on strike, nurses are advocating not only for themselves, but for their patients and their care. From this perspective, it seems obvious that nurses should contribute to the picket lines in hopes of change, but not everyone is in agreement. 

Those who oppose believe that, due to unsafe working conditions and shortness of staff already present in hospitals, nurses going on strike would only worsen staffing shortages. When comparing data from nurse strikes prior to the pandemic, evidence showed that “in-hospital mortality increased by 19.4 percent and hospital readmissions increased by 6.5 percent for patients admitted during a strike” and that “344 more patients were readmitted to the hospital than if there had been no strike” [4]. Adding to this, it has been found that, “during disruptive disasters, work stoppages or strikes by health care workers might easily result in more potential or actual harm to patients as the health care setting and its resources may be overwhelmed by new patients who have critical needs” [5]. As working conditions are already unsafe, it can be hard to justify the use of strikes as a measure to stand up against employers. While nurses are trying to mitigate the harmful effects that their patients are facing, the use of strikes could have the opposite effect by creating more staffing issues and subsequently reducing the quality of care the patients are receiving. Considering both sides of the story reveals that nurses face a grave ethical dilemma when considering going on strike, one that cannot be taken lightly. 

So the question still stands: should nurses strike for better working conditions? The answer to this ethical dilemma is a personal choice. While duty ethics suggests nurses have the responsibility to care for their patients, does this mean they must sacrifice their own working conditions? How can these nurses balance their own well-being with the care they provide for patients? Although some nurses choose to stay in the hospital it does not mean they do not support the movement taking place outside. Whether strikes are taking place or not, the importance lies in ensuring quality patient care is being advocated for. Though the height of the pandemic has dwindled, many hospitals are still facing the repercussions that it caused, and many nurses continue to strike today. Many nurses choose to go on strike, but only for a limited amount of time. This allows for nurses to advocate and be heard, while also allowing them to care for their patients. While this seems to be an admirable compromise, one can’t help but wonder, are there better ways for nurses to advocate for themselves and their patients? 

Works Cited

  1. Otterman, S. (2023, January 11). ‘Chaotic’ Scenes Inside 2 New York City Hospitals During Nurses’ Strike. The New York Times.

  2. Bourtis, E., Moussignac, Patrick., Cost, E., Lewke, J. (2023, August, 4). Rochester General Hospital nurses strike enters day two. News 10 WHEC.

  3. Isidore, C., Yurkevich, V., Luhby, T. (2023, January, 9). 7,000 ‘exhausted and burnt out’ NYC nurses walk out. CNN Business.

  4. Wright, S.H. (2010, July). Evidence on the Effects of Nurses’ Strikes. National Bureau of Economic Research.

  5. Murphy, M.J. (2022). Exploring the Ethics of a Nurses’ Strike During a Pandemic. AJN, 122. (3), 49-51. 0.1097/01.NAJ.0000823000.39601.b1.


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