In 1982, I graduated from an associate degree registered nurse program. Going through a divorce from an abusive husband at the time, rearing three children, and caring for an elderly grandfather with dementia was my life. Striving to learn a new career in saving lives while balanced precariously on the edge of my own, was no simple feat. My community college reality meant that of the 90 students that began the nursing program (for which there was a 2 yr wait), only 45 actually withstood the onslaught of knowledge in that length of time and actually graduated. We were proud, we were anxious to be outstanding RN’s, we were idealists.
They called it “reality shock” as I recall. This meant that all the ways one was supposed to be able to care for their patients, according to our preparation in nursing school, was not strongly evident on the nursing floor of any given hospital. This means that once out in the world, the reality of nursing is not exactly what we were taught to believe. Why?
It was at this point in time, that HMO’s, etc. were beginning to affect our health care system. What I didn’t know at the time, but was to find out a few years later, is that this was the first shot across the bow at how corrupt our system of unbridled capitalism was going to ricochet across the country. It took me about five years to understand this change to our country and our democracy.
Every year my mother would fly me from Tennessee, where I lived, to Naples, Fl for a one week vacation for my birthday. She worked at a local mom and pop store that sold office supplies and furniture, that had been in business since around 1986 to 1995. One day while visiting her at work in the very early 90’s, she told me her store had begun to flounder, as Office Max and Office Depot began to chip away at not only my mother’s job, but the very small business itself and within a short time, was indeed, out of business.
Back then, small businesses were the rule of the day and they drove the middle class, along with strong industry like car manufacturing, steel, John Deer and Caterpillar, with strong unions that set the standard for a living wage along with benefits for workers in the country. As if looking through time, I saw my own country was beginning to frighten me. I saw the huge box stores gobbling up local grocery stores, local hardware stores, my mother’s store, and all the other small stores that could not compete with the huge box stores that were taking over the nation.
It was an ingenious plan. The take-over was all nicely packaged to be a huge convenience to customers. Everything you need at one huge store. No more going from little shop to shop to find what you need. It was all sanitized, clamshell packaged, and just waiting for you to arrive for the best deals. Americans ate it up, not realizing that what they were gluttonously sucking up was the last remnants of their ability to choose, to negotiate for wages, to be entitled to good customer care, and the days of economic “good times”. The corporate take over of our country had begun and it was not lost on me as I stood in my mother’s store, peering out the huge front window. Things, as I knew them, were about to change.
I was a registered nurse and didn’t think that this change would affect me on a grand scale. After all, I had my career and it was pretty solid. I worked at a state hospital, and, because there were always sick people, my job was fairly safe, or so I thought. But the years ticked by as more and more small businesses succumbed to the big box stores until few remained. Little did I know that they would be coming for the hospitals next.
Fast forward to 2007. I was an RN with decades of experience behind me. I was a good nurse, for all of my experience, which entailed everything from OB and lactation specialist to NICU to IV team to infection control nurse. I worked in a neuro step down unit, knew how to manage a patient waiting to donate organs to putting in pic lines. In other words, I had quite a bit of experience.
It was at this time that I realized the handwriting was on the wall. My wages had stagnated in the last ten years. I had made the most money in 1995. I never made as much again. Working in a surgical holding room for about six years, I never saw my wages rise above $22/hr. I was still not catching on.
Every year, we as RN’s had to know more, take over the jobs of lab, housekeeping, and more, work as many hours, yet still no more pay with less assistance and more demands. The economic crash was beginning and I could see fewer and fewer elective surgeries due to the economic shutdown. I watched as RN’s that had been at the same hospital for 25 to 30 years get fired for some “infraction” or another.
In other words, the experienced RN’s that earned the most were being maliciously humiliated with twisted half truths and fired. Not laid off, fired! This was to humiliate them and to keep them from collecting unemployment. When attempting to plead my case to quality assurance (supposedly a company backed sounding board that would listen to employee mistreatment), I realized that they, too, were part of the corporate hospital system and cared nothing for helping the employee whistle blowers. They were only there to establish an appearance of corporate fairness.
What I also came to realize is this was the workings of a now corporate dominated hospital chain. It wasn’t about keeping experienced nurses that cared about their patients, it was about money. I watched as four RN’s in one unit, myself included, were fired by twisting truths, humiliating them, and then systematically getting rid of them to ease the corporate bottom line. We were all over 45, all earned the highest pay and benefits, all unceremoniously fired over two years time.
For a year and a half, I went without a single cent of income. I had maxed out what credit cards I had almost paid off, just to buy food and pay electric bills. I was frantic trying to keep my newly purchased home (I had put down a $20,000 down payment on that home and the mortgage was only $700/mo) from foreclosure. I was over 55, had been an RN all of my working years, and had no clue what I was going to do.
Now my experience was a liability and I had just been fired. In the town where I worked, a major hospital had shut its doors and another major chain had to pick up the staff, including RN’s, into their own system. So this left two major corporate hospital chains that I couldn’t find a job with. I had been fired from one and the other was already glutted with where to put newly acquired nurses from the closed hospital. The only other hospital in the area hired by way of filling out an application online and hoping someone called you, which never happened. Even nursing agencies were going out of business due to lack of need for temporary nursing jobs.
At the age of 55, I was corporatized out of work, was too young for social security, and had no work experience outside of being a registered nurse. To my horror, my life was pretty much over. Had it not been for a very good friend and my son getting me through, my new home would have been under an overpass. Even so, I lost my home and the down payment to the banking system because I was unable to pay the mortgage. I lost my self-respect. I lost my very drive to live. The statistics showed I was not alone.
After 26 years of working nights, holidays, weekends, and sometimes even holding down two jobs in critical care, I was now destitute. Never in my wildest dreams did I believe this would ever happen to me, in my country, where working hard, getting a career, having experience along with a sterling record would actually work against you instead of for you.
In the new corporate landscape, it wasn’t about loyalty to good employees or even quality healthcare, it was about a corporate bottom line where it was cheaper to pay the occasional lawsuit for negligence due to understaffing, than it was to hire enough competent staff to care for patients when wages and benefits were taken into account.
I did what many baby boomers did at the end of their rope. I had a long history of chronic ailments which were enough to gain me disability and having been a nurse for so many years, it garnered me a bit higher wage on the social security scale, but not much. My income was cut by over half and the process to even get disability was torturous at best. It took over a year and required a lawyer, even though my lawyer did absolutely nothing more than send in for appeal the paperwork I had already amassed and attempted to do on my own in an effort to avoid a lawyer taking a huge chunk of my money, which they did. Even now, I live month to month with over half of my meager income going to just rent (I lost my home and the $20,000 down payment). Even being on social security at one of the higher rates, this year, I got no raise in income, yet my rent went up $50 per month, and my advantage plan healthcare insurance went up and is covering less. The noose is tightening.
Now I witness my children going through the same things. Jobs pay next to nothing. Even my oldest daughter, who went to paralegal school, makes just enough to make it from paycheck to paycheck living very modestly, with rent less than $700 per month. And because she lives in a republican state, the governor refuses to work with the ACA to bridge the gap between premiums and deductibles, so she also doesn’t have insurance because she still can’t afford it. It’s cheaper to pay the penalty with her tax refund.
The economy may be booming, but not for the middle-class worker. Workers’ unions have been systematically dismantled, and with them, the ability for any worker to fight for a living wage or benefits while a republican congress bemoans how everyone is looking for a handout. Really?
We are a country that has gone back to indentured servants and the feudal lords besmirch our need to survive as “hand outs”. They undercut our ability to contribute to society and then blame us for not contributing more. From the Reagan “trickle down” economy, which was also in a recession if remembered correctly, to the introduction of the corporate democrat, who used to be the champion of the workforce, was now supplanted by a new breed of democrat that was also in bed with big corporate interests ushered in by the Clinton presidency. Although President Obama made great strides after the disastrous presidency of President Bush, he wasn’t the hope that the middle class had placed their sights on. With that reality shock, the middle class feels doom and a departure from the idea of the American dream and giving your children more than what you had.
No, I’m not naive enough to think Bernie Sanders can change the world, nor do I think he will succeed without the help of all of us voting to right this wrong for the American people. What I do know is that he has integrity and means what he says. What I also realize is that he is a very smart cookie. He has brought us out of our despair and shown a light on the plight of the American middle class. He exposed the fact that the “emperor” has no clothes. He has taken the reality of Americans on Main Street from the spin rooms of the media and corporate bought politicians with their deceptive sound bytes.
Even if he doesn’t win the primary, he has won the hearts of Americans and sent out the call to action that the country we once held as incorruptible has indeed been corrupted. He has fought against the corporate interests that fired us, stripped our pay, stripped our voices,
stripped our chance at the American dream that we held close to our hearts and the revolution will not be televised.