Karen Schneider

I first heard the call to be a nurse when I was 11 and my aunt was diagnosed with cancer. Every day after school I went to her house and helped in any way I could.

Caring for her was one of the most powerful experiences of my young life, so when I heard about the nursing program at the University of Iowa, my path was set. At 21, I returned home to Dubuque and started working at The Finley Hospital, now UnityPoint Health-Finley, where I’ve worked as a nurse for 31 very fulfilling years.

Sadly, that’s a career path few nurses get to follow today. One recent study found that one in three U.S. nurses leave their first job within two years. In a 2018 survey, 62% of nurses said they often felt burned out at work, and nearly half said they had considered leaving nursing in the last two years.

I see those statistics and I want to cry.

In Iowa, there’s even more reason for tears: The average pay for Iowa’s registered nurses ranks 48th among the 50 states. The average Iowa nurse makes almost $15,000 less than the average Illinois registered nurse, and $12,340 less than our Wisconsin counterparts.

As a result, we end up saying goodbye to a lot of our Iowa RNs.

So many young nurses come out of school with so much debt they have to take the highest paying job, no matter where it is. And all of us are stuck in a health care system that doesn’t reward loyalty like it did when I started.

Since 1990, the number of for-profit hospitals in America has jumped 38%. And the nonprofit hospitals are run more and more like the for-profits. Nonprofit chains have been gobbling each other up in a wave of mergers and acquisitions, and nonprofit CEOs are rewarded with huge salaries.

As nurses, we know this system is broken. We know caring and compassion should come first. But again and again, we see the bottom line come before the concerns of frontline caregivers.

The way to fix this system is by giving nurses and other caregivers a real voice at our hospitals. I’ve seen the difference it can make. At Finley, our RNs are in a union, so we have the strength to really advocate for our patients. We’ve also created a labor-management committee, so each month we meet with Finley administrators to talk about solutions to the challenges we face.

I can’t claim we solve every problem, but we’ve made progress. In our contract talks last fall, the administration worked with us to establish an innovative new pay structure. We raised wages for our lowest-paid RNs by 15.5% over the next two years and we ensured raises of at least 4.5% for everyone else.

Better pay gives RNs an incentive to stay. And that’s not just good for nurses, it’s great for patients.

Of course, nurses at one hospital can’t fix all the problems in Iowa. Even at Finley, our wages don’t match the pay in Wisconsin. A lot of our nurses still end up heading over the bridge.

We need Iowa’s lawmakers to step up and create an environment where nurses can build their careers. They need to rescind the 2017 state law that attacked public employees, including thousands of union RNs and healthcare workers. That law makes it harder for them to advocate for their patients, and is one more force pushing down pay for Iowa healthcare workers.

If the leaders in our legislature, and in our hospitals, stand with us, we can stop saying goodbye to Iowa’s nurses and start saying welcome home.

Schneider, a registered nurse in the operating room at UnityPoint-Finley Hospital in Dubuque, is chapter president of the Finley nurses’ union, SEIU Local 199.

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