Nurses are Protesting Poor Pay and Working Conditions that Prevent Recruitment and Retention of Staff Needed to Adequately Care for the City’s School Children
WORCESTER, Mass.—The registered nurses of the Worcester Public Schools, who have gone 17 months without a new contract, will hold signs and leaflet outside a special holiday celebration hosted by the Superintendent of Schools for teachers and staff in Worcester at the Durkin Administration Building, 20 Irving St. in Worcester, on Dec. 15 from 2 – 4 pm.
The nurses, who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, are scheduled to hold negotiations with administration at 4 pm, immediately following the demonstration. The key sticking point is the school committee’s refusal to grant the nurses pay parity with the teachers and other professionals in the system. School nurses are paid as much as 40% less than other professionals in the system even though they have the same level of education and the same certification requirements. The poor pay has caused a number of nurses to leave the school system, leaving the remaining nurses short staffed, with many schools without regular school nurse coverage, which places students in those schools at risk.
"The schools of Worcester are severely understaffed," said Karen Hanlon, RN, a school nurse in Worcester and co-chair of the nurses’ local bargaining unit. "While we should have 53 nurses to provide coverage for the city’s 53 schools and 26,000 students, there are only 30 nurses currently providing care. A total of 10 nurses have left our system since July."
The staffing shortage is occurring at a time when the student population of Worcester includes large numbers of students with serious health conditions. There are more than 9,000 visits per month to the school nurses’ offices, with more than 2,500 medications distributed. There are more than 2,000 students with asthma, 176 with life threatening allergies, 76 with diabetes, 255 with seizure disorders, 123 with cardiac conditions, 1,000 on medications for attention deficit disorder, with another 377 being treated for depression and 806 with behavioral/emotional conditions.
As a result of the low staffing, the school nurses are working with unsafe student assignments. While professional standards call for a nurse to have no more than 750 students (225 when special needs students are included), nurses in Worcester’s high schools are responsible for an average of 1,400 students each; and nurses in middle schools care for nearly 900 students. According to Hanlon, there are 14 nurses responsible for covering two schools. "If you have a child with a serious condition and one of these nurses is at the other school, there is no nurse to respond in the case of an emergency," she said.
One hundred and thirteen school districts in Massachusetts currently provide school nurses pay parity with teachers, including 49 with some form of parity and 64 with full parity.