Making a Difference: WSU assistant professor co-authors and presents hospital workers survey to Pittsburgh Mayor and Council

Wayne State University School of Social Work Assistant Professor Kess Ballentine, PhD doesn’t shy away from tough subjects. As stated in her Wayne State biography, she’s an expert in “low paid labor conditions and work-family strain.”

Ballentine served as a key consultant and designer of a Pittsburgh Hospital Workers Survey and the subsequent report presented last spring.

“Leaving the Bedside: Findings from the Pittsburgh Hospital Workers Survey”[1] includes input from a total of 2,253 former and current Pittsburgh hospital workers.

“We presented the preliminary results to the mayor along with hospital workers on a Zoom call in late April,” Ballentine said.

A few key findings from the report:

  • 93% of Pittsburgh hospital workers are thinking of leaving the profession.
  • The median hourly wage is $30.70, with 19% reporting a pay rate of less than $20 an hour.
  • 90% of workers reported their hospitals do not have sufficient staff to handle the workload.

The report’s findings are not specific to Pittsburgh alone—they apply to conditions currently being experienced in Michigan as well as across the United States.

“Nationally we are seeing high labor shortages in healthcare–a 2020 national study found that over 60% of healthcare workers reported stress associated with the pandemic impacted their mental health, and 55% felt burned out. OSHA data shows that healthcare workers are more at risk of physical and psychological injury due to the physicality of their jobs and exposure to violence and harassment than any other job sector in the U.S.,” Ballentine said.

The top reasons former workers left the profession included insufficient staffing, mental and emotional demands, low pay, and a high workload. For example, one former nursing assistant told researchers, “I feel that the hospital let me down by forcing me into positions where I not only had to violate their standards of care but also my own ethical code, all because we were never adequately staffed and always full.”

The hospital survey was referenced by the mayor and city council when they declared May 7 as Nurses and Hospital Workers Day in the city of Pittsburgh.

“May 7th was an important day for the city to come together to raise awareness about the needs of workers in this life-saving industry. After decades of stagnant wages and increasing devaluation of their work before and during the pandemic, nurses and hospital service workers deserve recognition. By designating this day, local leaders and governmental entities can work together to keep attention on this important struggle to improve working and patient care conditions,” she said.

Ballentine notes as a society we need to advocate against threats of violence in the workplace and address critical issues by building a safer healthcare system that focuses on care and well-being over profits and abuses of power.

“Social workers can lead the way here. We can all advocate to address social inequities that drive harmful social determinants of health, push for more inclusive and less expensive healthcare policies, and encourage each other to self-advocate in healthcare settings.”

While the report revealed disturbing statistics and practices in the healthcare industry, it provided hope for the future from workers offering suggestions for positive changes.

“Frontline workers’ voices and experiences need to be 50-51% of the people at the table where decisions are made and where policies are reviewed,” said a nurse.

Nine out 10 said the best way to support workers is by increasing pay. Other suggestions included providing loyalty benefits, offering less expensive or free health insurance, providing free parking, and giving more time off.

In the report’s final summary, recommendations were also offered by the research team, for both hospitals and policymakers, such as:

Hospitals must:

  • Ensure adequate staffing
  • Address worker safety
  • Guarantee access to physical and mental healthcare
  • Give workers a voice in the decisions that affect their working conditions and ability to care for patients
  • Pay livable wages  

Policymakers must:

  • Pass or modify local and regional laws and regulations to address the vicious cycle experienced by hospital workers so they are supported, and their voices are heard

“We suggest that policymakers protect and support workers’ efforts to raise their wages, legislate sufficient paid time off and medical leave, expand access to health insurance, and ensure appropriate staffing ratios.”

The report’s recommendations may be useful for healthcare workers in other regions, such as the Detroit area.

Ballentine noted that the pandemic could have been a turning point where hospital administrators began to listen to frontline workers, but it didn’t turn out that way.

Data suggests that public health crises are becoming more frequent. We need to invest more in healthcare infrastructure for everyday Americans that is accessible, affordable, and well-resourced enough so both workers and their patients feel that care is occurring. – Kess Ballentine, PhD

Ballentine recently presented two papers at the Work and Family Researcher’s Network 6th Biennial Conference in New York City. One paper focused on how micro policies in healthcare workplaces are being used to punish single and Black mothers for using their own paid time off benefits, and the other discussed the correlation between low hospital worker wages and depression, anxiety, and PTSD among nurses and hospital service workers.

Ballentine hopes to bring this kind of research to the Detroit metro area where healthcare workers and their families likely have endured similar challenges. “This summer, I am starting projects to extend this work to Detroit to examine how working conditions affect children’s school outcomes.”

To learn more, download and read the full Pittsburgh hospital workers report here.

[1] Shook, J., Woo, J., Ballentine, K., Goodkind, S., Tillman, H., Jones-Casey, G., & Engel, R. (2022, April). Leaving the Bedside: Findings from the Pittsburgh Hospital Workers Survey. Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh Wage Study.

Author: Laura Hipshire,

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