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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Gemma Ziegler, June 22, 2006. Interview U-0181. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Reasons for the nurse shortage and gathering information about working conditions

Ziegler discusses her thoughts on the perceived "nursing shortage," arguing that the problem is not necessarily that there are not enough nurses, but rather that working conditions for nurses are so bad that nurses leave the profession in high numbers. In describing the situation, Ziegler outlines how she and other NPO activists had been gathering information since their first failed election in 1989 in an effort to build stronger cases against mismanagement, discrimination, and poor working conditions.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Gemma Ziegler, June 22, 2006. Interview U-0181. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

SARAH THUESEN:
You hear so much about the nursing shortage in America and an outsider to this story might think that that would give you tremendous leverage in this situation. Why do you think that hasn't helped more?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
One, there's not a nursing shortage. I don't care what anybody says. It's a shortage of nurses willing to put up with the conditions. There are nurses. They're leaving right and left. They'll go into other areas. Other things have opened up for them. They retire. They sell real estate. Soffia's daughter's a nurse. She builds houses now. There's lots of nurses, but they're not going to put up with those conditions. The leverage, they don't care. They just don't care. They don't care what we do. They'll come up with something. They don't look at the big picture. They live from day to day and they'll just make whoever's there stay and work longer. They just don't care, they really don't. It sounds petty when I was talking about the crackers, but going back to Nurses' Day, they give nurses a sippie cup for Nurses' Day with the hospital's name on it. One nurse said, "I'm waiting for them to give us a feedbag to hang around our necks so we don't have to—." Most nurses don't get their breaks or lunch, they really, really don't. I told you about the nurse wearing a diaper because she didn't get her breaks in ICN. She said, "I can't leave the babies and there's nobody to relieve me." So she has to relieve herself in her diaper and she's a young nurse. She's in her thirties. I just don't think it makes any difference to them. They'll get around it one way or another. One way they were trying to get around it, Norton brought in nurses from the Philippines, trying to bring workers in that they could, I guess, dominate or have something over. They put them up in a hotel and they paid for their apartment: "We brought you in here and now you're slaves to us forever." They get around it. They get around it by going to the Board of Nursing and trying to get other professionals in the hospital to do some of the work that the nurses normally do and eliminate some of the process that way. And the housekeeping, I mean we had the most wonderful housekeeper who would stand up to management. She would speak to the press. We've had to get her job back a couple of times, but she's still there, Wilma.
SARAH THUESEN:
Wilma.
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
A wonderful person.
SARAH THUESEN:
What's her last name?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
McCombs.
SARAH THUESEN:
Yes, I saw a reference to her in a newspaper article.
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
She's wonderful. She went to the paper about, they fired all their housekeepers. This was downtown in Audubon. I don't know about Suburban. They brought in contract labor. About that time after they did it, Kay and I were out at the Ramada Inn for something, an event or something. I can't remember why we were out there. And we see these workers standing in front of the Ramada with shirts on that say, "Norton Hospital." So we hop out of the car and ask them. They were brought up from Atlanta or Tennessee and they were putting them up here. We didn't wonder if they were some of the prisoners that you hear about. You know, they hire prisoners in other states to do work. We never could prove it, but that was our gut feeling from talking to these guys. They wouldn't say what they did down there, but it was like, "We don't know. We don't know. We're from Tennessee." So then when Wilma went to the press about that they didn't have enough disinfectant in the hospital to disinfect, not enough toilet paper. Toilet paper was kept under lock and key. The staff couldn't get the toilet paper unless they had the key. It was a big article in the paper about her and she spoke out. And within thirty days, they hired back all their old housekeepers. So I mean, that's the power, that's the power of the people. Even though we don't have a formalized union, when you work with people and you have people brave enough to risk and some of them have lost their jobs, but like I said, we've gotten almost every single one of them back. One nurse we didn't get back, but I think she went over the line to where we couldn't help her. It wasn't really, it wasn't about the union. It was about something else. So it was hard for us to defend her after she said the stuff that she said at the hospital. It was really hard for us to defend her. We used to tell nurses, "Keep everything the hospital gives you, every memo, everything. Take it home, file it. You find a box and stick it in there." And that's what Kay taught us. She taught us from the very beginning save everything. Don't throw anything away. Collect any new memo that comes out. Collect any new, what did they used to call that, job description. Collect every bit of information. And when we had to go to court, whether it was for the union hearing, Jane's case, we had nurses inside collecting stuff for us, bringing stuff they had at home. The documentation, the NLRB couldn't believe all the documentation we had. I mean, we had drawers full, files. For a little organization, we had, I think it was twelve or sixteen file cabinets full. Now it wasn't all stuff from the hospital, but we had probably three cabinets just full of stuff from the hospitals, all their documents and their manager's manual. We got a hold of it all. Of course, we got a hold of the price list. That's why we were on Primetime.