Many nurses are putting themselves on the front lines to care for patients with COVID-19 across the globe. Enduring long hours, little-to-no break times, diminishing critical personal protective equipment (PPE), and the stress and worry of bringing this new-to-human virus home to their loved ones. Other nurses, however, are facing a different kind of fear: unemployment.

How is it possible, in a world that is hanging by the tattered threads of a nurse's reused PPE mask strings, that nurses are laid-off from their work? In the Year of the Nurse and Midwife, with New Yorkers literally shouting from the rooftops each night to celebrate nurses and healthcare workers (HCW), how is it that nurses are being furloughed? In well-publicized reports, the nursing shortage is only going to get worse as the baby boomers retire, yet nurses cannot find work. How is this possible?

Non-Emergency Healthcare on the Backburner

The simple yet complicated answer is that not all "essential workers" are truly essential. In early February, when the U.S. was just starting to acknowledge the wave of deadly COVID-19 cases sweeping the globe, the CDC made recommendations to reduce or stop elective or non-urgent evaluations and procedures. This suggestion, to minimize unnecessary exposure to both healthy and fragile people, caused a ripple effect on the staff of those clinical areas. Clinics who only perform elective surgeries are now closed. Only emergent discretionary diagnostics for such tests as mammograms and ultrasounds are being performed. One nurse, who manages an aesthetics practice with her plastic-surgeon husband, was forced to close their practice and lay off their entire staff.

Ideally, this is a temporary stoppage. Yet it's still too soon to know if the ripples of the shutdown have caused tsunami-sized waves to healthcare systems and private practices which may never recover. How long will it take for the country to both physically and emotionally recover to the point of being willing to risk a COVID-19 relapse while they are recovering from an elective hip replacement? No one quite knows.

Meanwhile, nurses are out of work.

Where Can Nurses Find Work?

Organizations that are still hiring nurses are typically needing full-time staff and in areas such as long-term care, which might not be as appealing to a nurse who has spent the last ten years injecting Botox and fillers. Another challenge for nurses getting hired is the fact that existing staff are picking up overtime shifts, so there is no need for organizations to hire additional staff. This same phenomenon occurred during the 2008 recession, where nurses worked 2-3 jobs at various healthcare facilities to make up for laid-off spouses. Departments had nurses lining up to work the extra hours so often that there was never a need to hire from the outside.

Tips for Nurses Looking for Employment

The business of healthcare is facing stressors never imagined in our lifetime. While nursing is typically a recession-proof career path, many nurses are finding themselves in uncharted waters. Here are some tips on navigating through this storm:

1. Stay connected: Reach out to recruiters and headhunter companies to get your resume into the hands of those still hiring.

2. Ask for help: This is not a familiar or comfortable position as a nurse; we're more comfortable in the caregiver role. Ask friends and your social media network who is hiring and ask for a referral.

3. Consider reinventing yourself: Is a pandemic a good time to start that nurse writer career? There is never a perfect time for any new venture, but think outside of your PPE box and try something new.

4. Add a certification or degree: Colleges are also rethinking how they deliver education, and online is undoubtedly the best option, all things considered. Perhaps taking this downtime to complete a certification or degree is the best use of your time.

5. Get over yourself: It's a long step from ICU to a skilled nursing facility, but if you need to work, patients need nurses. Consider a nursing pathway such as home health, hospice, or rehabilitation. There is always room to learn new skills.

The World Health Organization certainly predicted this year correctly: The Year of the Nurse. Many are experiencing fires they never anticipated in a lifetime or career. Too many are experiencing the fear and grief of losing a job in the middle of an international crisis. Stay strong, build resilience, and find the silver lining through the storm.

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Catherine Burger, RN, BS, MSOL, NEA-BC
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