News & Events

Down the rabbit hole

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
October 2009 Edition

By Deb Rigiero
Associate Director, Organizing

I imagine that many of today’s nurses often feel like Alice in Wonderland following the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole—chaotically falling into a very strange and surreal world while they are working what should be a regular shift at a typical hospital.

Just imagine “Nurse Alice” sipping the potion labeled “drink me,” only instead of making her large the concoction makes her older. After years of nursing, her back and shoulders are sore, her knees are stiff, her hands ache and she needs glasses to read the computer screen.

Yet, Nurse Alice still loves her profession. She is able to mentor new nurses, provide support to her colleagues, and care for her patients using all her experience, education and skill.

But lurking in the corners of Hospital Wonderland is the Cheshire Cat, grinning and disappearing. It appears to be taunting Nurse Alice. What does that cat want?

Nurse Alice follows the grinning cat down an Oak Corridor into a part of Hospital Wonderland she has never visited before. There, she sees a Red Queen in front of a computer screen. What is the Queen looking at?

Off with their heads!

It is a list of employees and their dates of birth. “What does she need this for?” Alice wonders. Next, she sees the Red Queen strike a line through a name as she yells “Off with their head!” She continues to strike different employees’ names off the list.

Alice recognizes one of the names of a nurse who is just a few years older than her being “red-lined.” She notices that many of the red-lined nurses are the older, more experienced nurses. Why would the Red Queen do this?

Nurse Alice runs into the “Duchess” and tells her what she sees. The Duchess says to Alice, “Everything has a moral, if only you can find it.”

Nurse Alice thinks about this and realizes she is truly in a very strange and surreal world. A world of insidious age discrimination where experienced nurses are targeted for discipline, reported to the Board of Registration of Nursing, or threatened with lay-offs because of their age. Of course in Nurse Alice’s world, her hospital is not unionized so there is no protection.

Is there a moral to the story?

One has to wonder who benefits by “red-lining” experienced nurses. If a greedy employer looks at this as pure financial gain, then this is a good program. It makes financial sense to lay-off, discipline or force out the more experienced nurses who typically are paid more per hour, are at higher risk of using sick time and health care benefits, and who receive more benefit time than nurses who have not been there long.

Who is hurt by this insidious age discrimination? Experienced nurses that now have to worry about job security; patients who depend on nurses for their care; and less experienced nurses who need experience and mentoring. The ideal floor or unit should have new nurses, older nurses and nurses in between who can bring different experiences, knowledge and support to the patients they care for.

So, what is the moral of Alice’s story? Unionize, unionize, unionize! Prevent this insidious age discrimination by having seniority rights, the grievance process and the unity of your colleagues who know that an injury to one is an injury to all. If you are already in a union, be vigilant in monitoring disciplines and watch for patterns that would indicate age discrimination.

Now, let us all peer “through the looking glass” and see a workplace that values experience and provides mentoring for new nurses. Together, we can make our hospitals places where nurses can nurse and patients get the care they need and deserve.

The End