From left to right, Charmaine Morales, president of United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals; Patricia J. Waller, regional vice president, AFSCME Ohio Council 8; U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra; Rosemarie Kukys, CSEA Orange County Local President and Rhonda Cox, member of New Jersey’s 1199J, National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees. (Photo provided by AFSCME.)

WASHINGTON — Orange County Local President Rosemarie Kukys was among four AFSCME nurses from across the country who recently met with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra to discuss the health care staffing crisis and the risks to health care workers and patients.

Kukys, who also serves as our union’s Orange County Unit 1st Vice President and Southern Region 2nd Vice President, is a registered nurse employed at Orange County’s Valley View Center for Health and Rehabilitation.

She spoke with Becerra about the staffing struggles that public health workers continue to face at hospitals and long-term nursing and rehabilitation facilities and how this has negatively affected the nursing profession.

She noted that she was honored to be selected to participate in the AFSCME meeting with Becerra.
At many public hospitals and nursing homes, persistent understaffing has resulted in excessive amounts of mandatory

CSEA’s Kukys discusses health care staffing with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Becerra
overtime, which has led many nurses to burnout and lack of a work-life balance. As such, many nurses are leaving the profession.

The state recently strengthened legislation restricting mandatory overtime for nurses. Employers must now report to the state Department of Labor any needs to use mandatory overtime for allowed exceptions such as health care disasters, emergency declaration or required for safe patient care during an emergency or ongoing medical procedures.

Even with strengthened legislation, understaffing is still a major concern. In addition to people leaving the health care profession, fewer people are pursuing health care careers in direct care roles such as public hospitals and nursing homes, causing major concerns about future staffing.

AFSCME nurses from across the country, along with AFSCME International President Lee Saunders, third from left, meet with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, seated at end of table, fourth from left. CSEA Orange County Local President Rosemarie Kukys is fifth from left, back to camera. (Photo provided by AFSCME.)

Advocating to address staffing
The AFSCME nurses also spoke with Becerra about the need for the federal government to help address health care understaffing.

“We need more nurses to work in long-term rehab and we need to entice people to work in that field,” said Kukys. “Because Orange County is so close to New York City, they can pursue nursing jobs that are not face-to-face, including at insurance companies, and earn more money.”

To help address staffing shortages, Kukys recommended there be a bridge program from certified nursing aides (CNAs) to licensed practical nurses (LPNs) to registered nurses (RNs) that allows workers to get the needed education to advance to their desired nursing title and have an affordable option to do so. In downstate New York, the cost to pursue a licensed practical nursing degree can be as high as $28,000, which is out of reach for many people.

“We need an incentive and pathway to education and promotion,” said Kukys.
While Kukys spoke specifically about the concerns of hospital and nursing home workers, her counterparts from California, Ohio and New Jersey focused on understaffing at acute care, behavioral health and correctional facilities.

Kukys said that Becerra was engaged and receptive to the nurses’ stories.

Recruitment and retention continue
The meeting with Becerra was part of AFSCME’s ongoing Staff the Front Lines initiative to help increase staffing in health care and other public professions. AFSCME International President Lee Saunders also participated in the meeting and discussed the initiative with Becerra.

In New York, CSEA has been working with Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration on efforts to recruit and retain public employees amid the need for increased staffing.

The governor has pledged to boost the health care workforce by 20% over the next five years. In addition to one-time bonuses for eligible public employees, our union has worked with the state on incentives to increase nursing staff. CSEA is continuing to work with the state on continuous recruitment to public-sector jobs.

— Janice Gavin


About Author

Janice Gavin is the editor of The Work Force and CSEA’s special interest publications. A graduate of SUNY Plattsburgh and Syracuse University, Gavin has been a journalist and public relations professional for more than 25 years. She worked as a newspaper reporter and bureau chief at the Plattsburgh Press-Republican, where she was honored with Associated Press and New York Newspaper Publishers Association awards. Gavin joined CSEA as a communications specialist in the union's Southern Region in 2000. In 2004, she became The Work Force's associate editor, a position she held until becoming the publication's editor in 2017. Growing up in a union household, she is dedicated to improving workers’ lives through telling their stories.

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