In the hospital, with no staff in sight

Where are the workers? They're tired and fed up. Is it any wonder we have so many essential jobs unfilled?

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published September 9, 2022 11:17AM (EDT)

Hospital bed in the hallway (Getty Images/David Sacks)
Hospital bed in the hallway (Getty Images/David Sacks)

The brown UPS truck blocked my driveway. A sweaty man in his 40s with spiky, disheveled hair climbed out of the back of the cargo area and trudged toward my house with three packages — two of them arriving a day early. I didn't know what to do other than salute the guy, Army-style — back straight, eye contact, hand at hairline — through the window, where I watched. He nodded and shot a peace sign back. 

This was in 2020, during the height of the pandemic when essential workers were our lifelines. Politicians, community leaders, me and everyone in general paid homage to our glorious essential workers, from doctors and nurses to restaurant crews, trash collectors and delivery drivers. They were the ones risking their lives to make sure we were healthy, had full bellies, our neighborhoods were clean and, sure, also got our packages; you know, with all the Lysol, bleach, whatever hand sanitizer was available, and all of that assemble-it-yourself lawn furniture for the countless outdoor events we would go on to have as we tried to figure out the coronavirus and what it was. Two and a half years later, it seems like many of these roles are now going unfilled, prompting many to ask: Where did they go? 

My dad fell down last week and hurt himself severely. He was rushed to the ER and admitted. My wife and sister, who both made their way down to check on him, came back saying the same thing. The parking garage at the hospital was weirdly unattended. It was hard to find his room because they didn't see any staff members on the main floor. The nurses' station looked like a ghost town. They saw patients, but hardly any staff.

An understaffed hospital during a pandemic, alongside the return and possible rise of other serious viruses? Now?

In a Department of Health and Human Services issue brief, the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation's office (ASPE) keyed in on some possible reasons why my father's hospital was so empty: 

"The COVID-19 pandemic has put extreme stress on the health care workforce in the United States, leading to workforce shortages as well as increased health care worker burnout, exhaustion, and trauma. These pandemic-related challenges have taken place in a context of significant pre-existing workforce shortages and maldistribution, as well as in a workforce where burnout, stress, and mental health problems (including an ongoing risk of post-traumatic stress disorder) were already significant problems."

"I woke up in the middle of the night, really having to go," Dad told me on a phone call. "So I was pressing that damn buzzer over and over and over again, until I finally got up and tried to take myself to the bathroom." 

My dad had a simple choice: empty his bowels into his bed and shorts, or escort himself to the restroom. He chose the latter. He fell again, hurting himself even more. This would have been a simple task to assist him with if only the hospital was properly staffed.

The nurses' station looked like a ghost town. They saw patients, but hardly any staff.

The health care staffing issue isn't confined to hospitals. The pharmacist at the CVS where I get medicine was alone in the back hustling recently, filling bottles with small colored pills, answering phones and doing other admin work because he said there were no entry level technicians available. Baltimore City Public Schools began the school year with nearly 800 teaching positions needing to be filled.

And it's not just health care. Those early packages I saluted the UPS delivery driver for are not coming a day early anymore, let alone on schedule. My local post office has never recovered from 2020. They're still backed up. The shelves at my local grocery store are often bare, and there's always a pop star concert-length line at the registers and self-checkout stations. My car is in the shop and it's going to take three months to be fixed, the insurance adjuster assigned to my case is so overworked that he couldn't even sign off on the repairs because he is still dealing with cases from two months ago, Ubers seem to be always 15-20 minutes away instead of five, which used to be the norm.

All of my friends who are small business owners­­ are hiring each and every week. A recent survey by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) found that almost half of small business owners said they still can't fill open jobs, a nearly record-high percentage in the survey's more than 40-year history: "Overall, 64% of owners reported hiring or trying to hire in July. Of those trying to hire, 91% of owners reported few or no qualified applicants for the positions they were trying to fill. Thirty percent of owners reported few qualified applicants for their open positions and 27% reported none."

Tens of millions of Americans contracted some from of COVID-19 over the past two years. Many of the people who are missing from the workforce can't clock in because they are dealing with after effects of long COVID, which comes with work-prohibiting symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, dizziness, lost of sleep and shortness of breath. The Brookings Institution recently released data that paints a clear picture of the impact long COVID is having on our workforce: 

  • Around 16 million working-age Americans (those aged 18 to 65) have long Covid today. 
  • Of those, 2 to 4 million are out of work due to long Covid. 
  • The annual cost of those lost wages alone is around $170 billion a year (and potentially as high as $230 billion). 

The slowdown in production is not just associated with employment. In conversations with my art friends, I'm learning many of them have not been the same since 2020, too. 

Why create all of this work in a world that might not be here?

"I could crank out 6-10,000 quality words a week," my friend Aaron, a writer based in the DC area, told me about his writing habits before the pandemic started. "And now, I don't want to s**t. I'm literally sitting around the house all day, trying to figure out brand new ways of how not to do s**t." 

Aaron described his lack of ambition and ability or desire to create as a form of COVID mental fatigue. Why create all of this work in a world that might not be here? Why go outside when everything is empty? Since there's a new plague every week, and so much death in the news, I should get high instead of trying to be productive? 

I'm fortunate. Neither long COVID nor mental fatigue has stopped me from wanting to work. As matter a of fact, writing and creating, along with tapping in with my family, have been the only things keeping me sane during these difficult times. But I've also observed that the collective energy doesn't seem to be the same as it was for events like readings and book talks. 

"The crowd is solid, it's like I said," I said to my friend and mentee, Koni, while sitting backstage at the venue for the hometown Baltimore launch of my newest book, "Black Boy Smile." "We are starting in in about 30." 

"OK, bet," he replied. "Hold like four seats for me." 

I peaked at the thin crowd. "I don't that would be necessary." 

Back in April 2020, Koni — who is also from Baltimore — and I were scheduled to appear on stage to promote our books and local work in the school system. Two hundred people RSVPd in the first two days. That number quickly turned to 400, so the organizer even moved us to a bigger venue. But of course, COVID canceled the event. But those event crowds weren't unusual then. In February 2020, I appeared in conversation with New York Times columnist David Brooks at the Enoch Pratt Library in front of 1,300 people. I wasn't fazed because standing room only was the norm for my Baltimore events. Even back in 2016, as a brand new, no-name writer, 300 eager people showed up for the launch of my first book, "The Beast Side." And now, at the height of my career, seven years later, I was preparing to read from my newest work in front of a modest 40.

"This is an excellent turn out," the bookseller said, as we prepared to begin. "Biggest crowd in a while. Congrats to you." 

"You do stand up now?" I asked. 

"Not being funny, dude," the seller replied. "People just haven't been coming out." 

I had fun with the small crowd­­. The pressure was off. It was more intimate, and gave me the opportunity to talk directly to the audience while trying out new essays and jokes. People freely talked about how drained they were from COVID —  COVID coverage, catching COVID, COVID deaths, COVID deniers and getting used to life with COVID. I shared my fears and frustrations with the new normal as well. I had forgotten how good it felt to be in community. People want community. And maybe one of the good things that has come out of the pandemic is a deeper commitment to valuing community — even over money — in America, the capital of capitalism.

And why not? Hard-working people have been busting their humps year in and year out with little to no advancement opportunity. We flick on our TV screens­ or open up our phones every day to see that our country has yet again ignored the biggest issues of our times, like reparations and abolishing all student debt, but magically has found a way to give a billion dollars to aid this nation or that. There's always, always money for war. Turn the channel and see congressional clowns, especially Republicans, argue aimlessly, acting as if they can't define nuance and don't know what reaching across the aisle means, even if it's for the betterment of the people they are supposed to be representing. And while all this fussing and bickering and ignoring and giving billions of dollars to other nations is happening, the rich are still getting richer. They're buying bigger pools and private jets, flying to space while the poor stay poor and can't see past being poor.

People are tired. They're tired of working, tired of being lied to, tired of not advancing, and it's showing.

If we hadn't already figured it out, those of us who were fortunate enough to work from home during the pandemic learned that the American dream doesn't exist for most. That is what came from sitting in the house. We sat and watched over a million of our fellow Americans die from a virus and we don't get an official day of mourning or anything except the invitation to go back to work and chase money that probably won't even help us advance. 

We saw how the whole idea of American social mobility is one of the greatest lies ever told. COVID opened many eyes to that, showing Americans that putting in all those long hours just isn't worth it. People are tired. They're tired of working, tired of being lied to, tired of not advancing, and it's showing. Can we blame people for quitting the demanding, "essential" jobs in search of something else? But we do need them. Essential is essential. So what could be done? 

The fact that my dad is staying in an understaffed hospital where he landed on the floor because his call was ignored is beyond scary to me. Our current worker shortage should prompt corporations and institutions to try something radically different­­, like paying real competitive wages over feeding greedy executives money they will never be able to spend. The bare minimum is no longer acceptable. Our workers are telling and showing us what a country without labor looks like. We should listen. 

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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