‘Safe staffing saves lives’: UNM Hospital workers protest understaffing and unfair wages

Nurses, residents say staff are leaving because management doesn’t take care of them

By: - June 23, 2023 5:05 am

Protesters gathered in front of the University of New Mexico hospital on Thursday, June 22, 2023 to call attention to difficult working conditions and pay issues. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)

Unionized health care workers at the largest hospital system in New Mexico have been in contract negotiations with their bosses since December, with little to show for it.

On Thursday, they protested unsafe working conditions and unfair wages outside the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, hoping to pressure management to come to the bargaining table.

Resident physicians and nurses were joined by patient care technicians, housekeepers, UNM students, faculty and their supporters in carrying signs, chanting and speeches outside the hospital along Lomas Boulevard Northeast.

Vicente Jaramillo, a pharmacist at UNMH, has been negotiating on behalf of other workers represented by District 1199NM of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees. 

Jaramillo said the hospital is in crisis, with its dedicated workers overworked and understaffed.

 “As a result, morale is at an all-time low,” he said.

For example, the neuroscience unit at UNMH has only six core nurses remaining, with the rest of the staff being travel nurses who make higher wages, said Theresa Custodio, a nurse who works in the unit.

“If they can afford travelers, they can afford us,” Custodio said. “At this point, if they take care of their staff, then they’ll stay. But they don’t take care of us, so people leave.”

Hospital managers have not tried to keep nurses, letting them go work at Presbyterian or even leave New Mexico, said William Wylie, who has been a resident physician at UNMH since 2019.

“Instead, the folks running the hospital sat back and took every crisis like it was only going to be for a couple of days, and here we are,” Wylie said.

This downward spiral has affected workers, managers and patients, Jaramillo said, creating a sense of frustration and exhaustion throughout the institution.

“The people are beat. We’re tired. We’re leaving,” he said. “These problems will not solve themselves; action is needed.”

“We are the hospital,” he said. “We are the heartbeat that keeps this institution alive. We clean the rooms, we fix the computers, we do maintenance, we check the medications, and above all, we provide compassionate care to our patients.”

At least five patients per nurse

Megan Cundy, a patient care technician, said the day shift has been running lately with five patients for every one nurse, and sometimes with only one patient care technician. And sometimes none at all.

Whenever a particular unit within the hospital does have enough staff, workers get moved to other units, she said

She said management recently moved her to another unit and for large portions of her shift was the only tech on the floor, caring for up to 36 patients.

“It’s just very dangerous and unsafe, because things can get missed,” Cundy said. “There’s just no way to do anything safely at that kind of ratio.”

Workers are not getting lunch breaks during shifts that last for more than 12 hours, she said.

Workers have told the union that some patient care technicians have been assigned to as many as 20 patients at a time, said Local 1199 Executive Director Eleanor Chavez, who is also a New Mexico state representative.

“When we’ve brought that to management, of course, they deny that it exists,” Chavez said.


Workers have asked management to establish nurse-to-patient ratios, Jaramillo said, which is crucial for the wellbeing of staff and the safety of their patients.

“By maintaining appropriate ratios, we can ensure that each patient receives the quality care that they deserve, while preventing burnout amongst our staff,” he said.

Jaramillo also serves on several safety committees in the hospital, and said safe staffing ratios would be critical to patient safety.

“Safe staffing saves lives,” he said.

Alicia Hernandez (right) was one of several health care workers who spoke to the crowd gathered in front of the University of New Mexico Hospital on Thursday, June 22, 2023. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)

A minute per room

The housekeeping team who cleans hospital rooms is also understaffed, said Alicia Hernandez, who has worked at the hospital  for 13 years and represents housekeepers in negotiations.

“What the hospital wants currently is quantity, not quality,” Hernandez said. “By doing that, we’re putting the patients and ourselves in danger.”

Management is trying to give each worker double or triple the work they had before, Hernandez said.

A new software system that dictates work for housekeepers is requiring them to clean a room in one minute, which is impossible, Hernandez said.

The hospital needs to be a place where workers have more ability to give their input, Cundy said.

“We see what things are like on the daily,” Cundy said.

Wages, clinical experience and holidays 

Workers are also asking for wage increases “that reflect our years of service and commitment to this hospital, and to keep up with inflation,” Jaramillo said.

The starting wage for custodians at the hospital is $15 per hour, according to the UNM website. This has led many, including herself, to take second jobs to support their families.

A spokesperson for the hospital told KOB on Thursday that as of the end of May, UNM Hospital was running with a $27 million loss and had decreased administrators’ pay which went into effect in April.

The hospital’s budget “does not include any pay decreases for frontline staff, but we are not able to include pay increases, given our current financial situation,” the spokesperson told the TV station.

However, District 1199NM Organizer/Staff Representative Mauricio de Segovia said UNM “is sitting on half a billion dollars of unrestricted assets that can be used for wages.”

Workers have also proposed a system to incentivize clinical experience, Jaramillo said, by encouraging them with more money to pursue more clinical knowledge, licensure, and certifications.

“This would lead to improved patient outcomes, and a reputation of excellence for our institution,” he said.

They’re also asking to be able to observe important holidays like Martin Luther King Day and Juneteenth, he said.

Management ignoring issues

Hospital management has decided to ignore all of the issues workers have brought, Chavez said.

“The hospital has shown little willingness to engage in meaningful discussions,” Jaramillo said. “Our voices have been dismissed. Our concerns have been brushed aside.”

This lack of response is not only disheartening, but also deeply concerning for the future of the hospital, he said.

“Our struggle is never over. Progress is never easy,” Chavez said. “We will continue to fight at the bargaining table for the workers, so that patients in this community have adequate and safe care.”

Labor negotiators said University of New Mexico Hospital management ignored them when they tried to raise concerns about working conditions at the state’s flagship hospital. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.