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Hospital Workers Spotlight Pay, Staffing Woes

Maui Health System health care workers rallied at the corner of Kaahumanu and Puunene avenues on Wednesday to call for fair wages that will help recruit and retain much-needed staff, better work-life balance and quality patient care.

KAHULUI — Maui Health System worker Emily Cantorna rallied at the corner of Kaahumanu and Puunene avenues on Wednesday to call for fair wages that will help recruit and retain much-needed staff, better work-life balance and quality patient care.

Fronting the Kahului Shopping Center, roughly one mile away from Maui Memorial Medical Center, the registered nurse stood alongside about 100 other health care workers and their families for two hours to wave signs, advocate and garner attention to the issues ahead of final negotiations.

“Working through the pandemic was tough, you know, we had a lot of sick patients and unfortunately we don’t have the amount of staff to safely care for them how we want to,” said Cantorna, a Baldwin High School graduate who received her education from the University of Hawaii Maui College nursing program.

The patient-to-nurse ratio on her floor at the hospital is usually 4-to-1, but lately the ratio has been 5-to-1 and sometimes Cantorna has had six patients at once. Health care workers are feeling burnt out, she said.

“We try to provide the best care for each patient, but of course, if we had more staff, we could have more one-on-one time with our patients,” she added. “It’s definitely a safety thing.”

According to a report by SimpleNursing, nurse pay has risen steadily over the years to coincide with the general costs of goods and services — there was a large rise in 2020, but then a slowdown in 2021.

Still, Hawaii nurses continue to earn the lowest salaries in the nation when the high cost of living is factored in, according to the report.

“I feel like people are living paycheck to paycheck, you know, and I see those with family have two working people in the family and they are still struggling. The cost of living is high,” said China Kapuras, who started in security at Maui Memorial, then became an admitting clerk, and is now in case management. “I understand how important our nurses are, but now I understand how important everybody’s role is.”

Born and raised on Maui, the Army veteran stood on Kaahumanu Avenue supporting local workers and garnering the recognition that health care industry employees deserve.

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“I don’t care where you work in the hospital. It’s an awesome feeling and we all put in the work,” Kapuras said. “We’re dedicated, loyal, and we need to be compensated for that. We had fear during COVID, but we stayed there to take care of the community, to take care of each other.”

Kapuras and Cantorna are among the 900 Maui Health System employees on Maui and Lanai represented by the United Nurses and Health Care Employees of Hawaii. This union covers registered nurses; social workers; physical and occupational therapists; speech/language pathologists; MRI, imaging and mammography technicians; financial counselors; admitting clerks; receptionists; and many more types of workers.

Maui Health employees, along with the union, have been in negotiations for a wage increase with Maui Health management and are entering a final bargaining session today, representative and lead negotiator Vanessa Salazar told The Maui News.

“Even just negotiate for higher wages to get the lower members a better living wage and then really just help with recruitment and retention to help with patient care at the hospital, trying to keep people from leaving Maui to work at other places,” Salazar said late Wednesday afternoon while passing out rally signage. “Trying to keep our people here … They’re super, super burnt out.”

Tara Cole, human resources director for Maui Health, said in a statement Wednesday night that negotiations “have been going well and we appreciate our professional, collaborative relationship with our union partners.”

“We are working on a fair, equitable agreement that will hopefully be resolved soon,” Cole said.

Maui Health said that the team has been working on recruiting health care professionals through ongoing job fairs, advertising and other marketing efforts, as well as building partnerships with local schools.

There have also been training programs in-house to help current employees advance their careers or earn specialty positions by providing them with training for advanced clinical skills, Maui Health said.

However, recruiting health care professionals is an “ongoing industry challenge” as the hospital continues to try to hire and retain local providers to care for Maui residents and visitors.

The United Nurses and Health Care Employees of Hawaii is part of the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, which together represents more than 32,000 registered nurses and health care professionals in California and Hawaii. The country’s urgent shortage of nurses has reached “catastrophic proportions” and hospitals have increased their demands for travel nurses, which is acting like a Band-Aid to the issue, according to the union’s website.

“The solutions to these complex issues will take collaboration with colleagues throughout the health care industry and the state, with the goal to find a sustainable pathway for stability in the industry,” Maui Health said in a statement. “Even prior to the pandemic, Hawaii had a significant deficit of health care professionals. The pandemic has only exacerbated this shortage.”

Although Hawaii pays the second-highest health care worker salaries in the country, Maui Health acknowledged the high cost of living creates a barrier for recruiting and retaining employees.

A nationwide survey by the joint union showed that 34 percent of nurses say it’s very likely that they will quit their jobs by the end of 2022, 1 million nurses will be eligible to retire in the next 10 to 15 years, 23 percent of nurses from the millennial generation are actively looking for new opportunities and 80,000 applicants were turned away by nursing schools.

“I’m a per diem nurse now because of it,” said Kathryn Sandberg, who has worked at Maui Memorial since 2016. “I’m a travel nurse now because of the wages, because of the way we’ve been treated, so fortunately I can retain my position at the hospital with a per diem status, which allows me to go elsewhere and work other places other than Maui.”

Before joining the rally line, Sandberg said she has to travel to “make ends meet.”

“I’d love to stay here to help the community, but that is the decision I’ve had to make because of the lack of wages and the lack of support,” she said.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.