AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – Nurses at Charlie Norwood are speaking out about what they’re calling a hostile working environment.NewsChannel 6 spoke with the head of the local nurses union.

Long working hours and lack of training are just a few of the complaints coming from a group of nurses here at Charlie Norwood. They say something needs to be done before patients here begin suffering too. 

“There’s a veteran who we care for every day who deserves the best possible care that we can give them,” said Irma Westmoreland.

Irma Westmoreland is a registered nurse at Charlie Norwood VA Medical center. She’s also the president of the local nurses union. She says nurses at Charlie Norwood are feeling disrespected and undervalued.

She says, “We have been detailing nurses from place to place to cover holes in staffing and detailing nurses for 90 days  six months nine months. Some of those details are voluntarily and some are not.”

Westmoreland says the big issue with the detailing at the medical center is, that they’re putting inexperienced nurses in areas that they’ve never worked before without adequate training.

“We’ve had nurses moved from the ambulatory day surgery area to the ICU to take care of patients in the step-down unit and they’ve never taken care of those kinds of patients before,” she said.

She says it’s like making a plastic surgeon do a neurosurgeon’s job. She says normally nurses would receive a 30-day notice of a detail change and within those 30 days, there’s training for that detail, but that protocol is no longer being followed. 

“Sometimes they were detailed and then the training didn’t start for days and days after that,” she said.

The detail changes are a result of a staffing shortage. The National Nurses Union says that more than 85 nurses have left Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center within the past 6 months. That’s also called for other nurses to work longer hours.

She says, “There’s been laws on the books to fix it, like alternative work schedules. Working three 12 hour shifts and still being paid for 80 hours and that law is called 72 for 80 scheduling and it’s been on the books for years and years, but Charlie Norwood does not want to use it.”

And Westmoreland says nurses working long hours to fill holes in staffing is only putting patients at risk.

“When you’re so short-staffed or you’re exhausted from not being able to take a break or take a lunch break or even get an adequate help you’re going to make mistakes. It sets  us all up for mistakes, but on the other side of that mistake is a veteran who put their life on the line for us,” said Westmoreland.

Westmoreland says she and a group of nurses from Charlie Norwood tried to make their concerns known to the director with a peaceful demonstration outside his office, but she says they were met with barricades and police force.

She says. “We were very peaceful, we just wanted to present our petition that over 3 hundred nurses had signed at the VA about the issues that we have. We just wanted to present the petition. We had foam boards  We weren’t allowed to go into the executive suite. We were told that if we went up into the executive suite we would be arrested.

NewsChannel 6 passed along those concerns to hospital leaders they say they’re working on a response

Officials with Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center respond.

Charlie Norwood VA is proud of the work of its nurses, especially over the past two years when they heroically stood at the frontlines of a global pandemic. Shared problem-solving is in the best interest of both Charlie Norwood VA employees and the veterans we serve. The Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center Director has offered to meet with local NNU leadership to discuss its concerns on several occasions. That offer for meaningful dialogue remains open.

Q: NNU has stated that nurses are being detailed to units for which they are not adequately trained for. Is this true, and what impact does it have on patient care?

A: No. Charlie Norwood VA details its nurses based on skillset and standardized competencies to care for the patients to which they are assigned. Charlie Norwood VA holds to a standardized, professional process for training its nursing staff, emphasizing documentation and patient care specific to the Veteran patient population. Moreover, when Charlie Norwood VA details a nurse, it’s to ensure we provide high-quality care to our Veteran patients and meet national staffing and patient care standards.

Q: Are Charlie Norwood VA nurses forced to work unreasonably long hours, often without breaks?

A: Charlie Norwood VA follows the National Nurses Union master contract regarding mandatory overtime. Our nurses are allowed and encouraged to take regular breaks during their shifts. If they feel they can’t take a break because of patient care concerns, they are asked to report to the charge nurse or nurse manager so a plan for coverage can be implemented.

Q: NNU states that 85 nurses have departed Charlie Norwood VA in the past six months. Is this accurate?

A: No, that is not accurate. While 69 nurses departed Charlie Norwood VA during the first six months of Fiscal Year 22, it’s important to remember that nurses choose to move to another position for a variety of reasons such as lifestyle choices, including accepting positions in travel nursing and virtual nursing that would allow them to work from home. Also, 10 of those 69 nurses left due to retirement, and another 12 transferred to a different VA facility, indicating a geographic relocation. The turnover rate among nursing professionals at Charlie Norwood VA compares favorably with rates at healthcare systems across our region. Notably, Charlie Norwood VA hired 32 new nurses during that same timeframe. We strive to provide Veteran patients high-quality, compassionate care, and we know that begins with our nurses. Therefore, Charlie Norwood VA has taken measures to recruit and retain the best nursing professionals, including offering recruitment and retention bonuses and salary increases.

Q: Did Charlie Norwood VA threaten to arrest nurses or block their access to the executive suite during a recent, peaceful demonstration?

A: No. During a recent NNU demonstration, Charlie Norwood VA leadership did not threaten any nurses with arrest or block access to the executive suite. Charlie Norwood VA leadership was working at the uptown Augusta campus, as they typically do every Tuesday and Thursday, and did not interact with NNU nurses during the demonstration at the downtown campus. On several occasions, Medical Center Director Dr. Robin Jackson has invited local NNU leadership to sit down to discuss their concerns. That offer for meaningful dialogue remain