This Hospital System Asked Its Employees to Volunteer… at Their Jobs

“Anyone can sign up to help outside of their normal working hours.”
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
This Hospital System Asked Its Employees to Volunteer… at Their Jobs
Collage by Cathryn Virginia | Image from Getty

As healthcare professionals and nurses in particular struggle to deal with a fresh wave of COVID hospitalizations, alongside industrywide burnout and staffing crises, any additional task can amount to an untenable burden. An internal company newsletter is never a fun read—but for Shelby, a 29-year-old registered nurse who works for Minnesota nonprofit M Health Fairview (and who declined to use her last name to avoid identification), a recent edition of her employer’s news brief email was a slap in the face. 


In an email which VICE reviewed, nestled among instructions for signing up to get a COVID-19 booster and “10 simple ways to manage stress” was a request for free labor, directed at her fellow employees: “Minnesota has one of the highest positive COVID-19 case rates in the nation, and patient volume is surging at our hospitals,” the email said. “We are in need of non-clinical Fairview, UMP, and University of Minnesota Academic Health Center employees to help support our patient care teams during this surge. These are volunteer opportunities. Anyone can sign up to help outside of their normal working hours.”

To Shelby, the message from her employer, a healthcare company run collaboratively by the University of Minnesota and the nonprofit Fairview Health Services, was loud and clear. M Health Fairview wants to help its clinical employees, and acknowledges that they are burned out and spread thin during yet another COVID-19 surge… but it doesn’t want to pay to do so. Some of the tasks listed in the email as part of this “volunteer opportunity,” including “filling water for patients, setting up rooms for patients, [and] stocking supplies,” are typically performed by RNs like her, Shelby said, or by nurse assistants—all clinical staffers, not the non-clinical volunteers that the callout was directed towards. 


Aimeé Jordan, the media relations manager for M Health Fairview, told VICE that its ask to employees isn’t an unusual one, especially not during the ongoing COVID crush. “We frequently seek volunteers and community support for non-clinical work in our hospitals and clinics,” Jordan said. “Volunteers are an important and valued part of our system—by both patients and employees.” Additionally, Jordan pointed to hiring efforts like the recent choice to recruit nurses from outside the US. “Patient and staff safety is our top priority,” she said. “We do not ask volunteers to do clinical work. They are providing support so our clinical teams can focus on the needs of their patients. Other health systems across the country do the same.”

Still, Shelby expressed skepticism at the idea that volunteer help was the solution her workplace needs. “Honestly, it’s dangerous to have people who are just volunteers doing these tasks,” she said. We spoke to her about what it’s like to be a nurse right now and why the disconnect between her employer’s wants and her needs as a worker feels so vast.

What has your experience as a nurse been like over the past two years? 

So, I got my [RN board certification] in June 2019. I’ve worked in a couple of different clinics and a couple different hospital units, but right now I work in a clinical setting. I worked in a Fairview newborn intensive care unit (NICU) when the pandemic first started in January 2020, so I didn’t see a ton of COVID patients. This past summer at the NICU we were deeply, deeply, short-staffed—it was really scary. My unit only had one nurse who had more than 10 years of experience and all the rest of us had less than two, so if she couldn’t be there we had nobody with experience in the unit. 


After that, I started working at a clinic that’s also in the Fairview system—I left the NICU because of short staffing and now, in the clinic I work at, we’re short-staffed again.

Why do you think staffing is such an issue?

I attribute it to COVID—I couldn’t prove it, but I think it’s because of people getting sick and people getting sick of working in health care and finding more money in other places. I don’t really see that ending. And then I got this email about volunteering [our] time to go stock carts or answer phone calls, which they could hire somebody to do. That’s the reason I got so mad about this call for volunteers; because we are already so tightly spread out.

Are there any other reasons you wouldn’t want to work with volunteers?

It’s dangerous to have more people in a hospital unit than you need. There are people underfoot and you’re spreading more disease than you would otherwise. They don’t know what they’re doing and we have no way of ensuring that they'll come back. It's more work for a nurse to teach a new volunteer every day what to do and where things need to go than just hiring another nurse onto the unit—who can also provide patient care.

Besides trying to rustle up volunteers to help out, do you feel like your employer is doing anything else to retain nurses like you? 

They frequently send me emails about making sure I take care of my mental health—like, doing yoga! [Laughs] No, they did do retention bonuses at my old unit, something like $10,000 a year after two years. It’s just not comparable to being a travel nurse. I think every nurse looks at travel nurse positions—it’s something you do when you like, are like, I'm definitely gonna quit, like, look at how much money I could make! There is ​​a position right there listed with a travel nurse company, in my old unit, on my old shift… I made $34 an hour plus a $4 night shift differential, and the pay for the travel nurse in the same position is $4,865 a week. 

Some weeks I work 40 hours a week, and other weeks I work 32 hours a week, so it’s really not that much. But my eight-hour day is an eight-and-a-half hour day because we don't get paid lunches and the commute to work is 30 minutes each way, so that’s another hour. [Editor’s note: Jordan, the media relations manager for M Health Fairview, denied that nurses at the nonprofit’s facilities take unpaid lunch breaks.] I'm not gonna stay here longer and stock some shelves. I can go volunteer my time making food for people who really need it, or I can go volunteer and do… literally anything else!

I'm not angry at travel nurses or any employee at the hospital, with the exception of people making over a million dollars a year. My managers are honestly good people, it’s that they aren’t given anything to give to us either.