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Nurses say they are caring for more patients, causing many to leave their careers

CHARLOTTE — We all want the COVID-19 pandemic to be over, especially health care workers who have been on the front lines saving lives for more than two years now.

The pandemic highlights a real problem in our hospitals -- a staffing shortage, specifically among nurses. Both Charlotte-area hospital systems, Novant and Atrium Health, are offering financial incentives in hopes that a boost in money will help retain employees.

The need for nurses is critical, so the competition to hire is fierce. However, some nurses say even more money doesn’t make the career worth it anymore.

As a labor and delivery nurse for 15 years, Becca Sakada saw the number of births balloon in the Charlotte hospital where she worked.

“We were going from 4 to 500 babies being born a month to 600 to 650,” she said.

A few months ago, she walked away from the job.

“Labor and delivery should be 1-to-1 care but we’ve been expected to take care of two to three patients at a time,” Sakada told Channel 9.

She said she had to start warning patients she might not get to them right away.

“I’ve had instances where I was delivering and watching my baby’s heart rate in another room,” she said.

The stress of increasing patient loads and fewer nurses on duty isn’t new. The UNC Chapel Hill Sheps Center, which conducts health care services research, found that even before the pandemic, North Carolina would face a shortage of 12,500 nurses by 2033.

Meka Douthit El is president of the North Carolina Nurses Association. She said to combat the shortage, more teachers and student clinical training sites are needed, but instructors earn $20,000 to $30,000 less in the classroom than working bedside. The NCNA believes the state, schools and hospital systems need to make both positions more worthwhile.

“Can it be tuition reimbursement? Can it be other opportunities? Can you support and offer daycare opportunities? Nothing should be off the table,” Douthit El said.

Zac Boshell used to work in an ICU in Charlotte. Now, he packs a bag and drives nearly two hours away for three 12-hour shifts as a travel nurse, working for a staffing agency to fill a need in another hospital. The job also includes money for lodging and meals.

“If you’re going to deal with the same stress, you might as well get paid more,” Boshell said.

And the pay difference is significant – Boshell said he gets paid two to three times more than he did working in an ICU.

Across North Carolina, the pay varies but the average first-year nurse earns between $27 and $30 an hour. Travel nurses can earn well over $50 an hour. At Atrium Health, travel nurses now account for 6% of the current nursing staff. In the past, it’s been as low as .5%

A Novant spokesperson told Channel 9 it’s tough to compete with travel nurse pay rates, so Novant is looking abroad. The hospital is working to place 300 nurses from the Philippines and the Middle East in their 17 hospitals by the end of this year.

It’s a staffing crunch with no simple solution, but former nurses like Becca Sakada said change is needed before more leave the front lines and cause patient care to suffer.

“Nurses need to be compensated. More need to be hired. Patient loads need to drop,” she said.

(WATCH BELOW: Federal medical team arrives to support Atrium Pineville’s emergency department)