Kelly Whited Jones: Utah nurses do too much for too little

(Mary Altaffer | AP file photo) A nurse gestures from inside the hospital as others hold a demonstration outside Jacobi Medical Center to protest a new policy by the hospital requiring a doctor's note for paid sick leave, Friday, April 17, 2020, in the Bronx borough of New York.

We are asking too much for too little. Imagine waking up each day weighing the risk of going to work to help sick patients against protecting your own health. Now consider that you are doing it for less pay, less career mobility and less representation in health administration.

The professionals on the front lines of this pandemic are overwhelmingly women. In Utah, 89% of nurses and 22% of physicians are women. Nationwide, three-quarters of full-time health workers are women. A 2015 study found that male RNs still out-earn female RNs across specialties and positions, without the pay gap narrowing over time.

We are asking women to serve on the front lines of this pandemic without granting them basic constitutional equality under the law. A bill to remove the deadline for the Equal Rights Amendment that would grant these basic rights currently sits dormant on Sen. Mitch McConnell’s desk. It has passed the U.S. House — with Utah Reps. Ben McAdams and John Curtis voting for it — much like the bill to ratify the ERA sat on Utah House leadership’s desk during the 2020 session. Women’s equal rights are not yet considered a priority in our state and in our country.

“Not this year,” said our own Lt. Gov. Spencer Governor Cox about the ERA.

When will full equality be a priority? Utah women face the greatest wage disparity in the country. Utah’s female health care workers experience wage disparity at every level. Nurses make an average of $55,000 a year in Utah, which for a family of four, is just below the poverty line.

And how is Utah responding to this wage discrimination? During the 2020 session, male representatives insisted that the wage gap doesn’t exist. One representative stated that women get too much of the spotlight as it is, describing a “Utah State Distinguished Women” event to which he was invited, as evidence.

“What about the men?” he said. “When do we get our day?”

Another suggested that if they didn’t like the pay, women should just pick a better-paying field. But isn’t that what is happening? Isn’t that why Utah has a critical nursing shortage? We must reevaluate and pay women and men fairly for the work they do.

Historically, women have always served in harm’s way during a health crisis. In 1918, during the "Spanish Flu,” having quality nursing care was described as “the clearest predictor of survival.” In 1918, one official declared, “If you would ask me the three things [we] most needs to conquer the epidemic, I would tell you, ‘Nurses, more nurses and yet more nurses.’”

Ultimately, the “Spanish flu” claimed the lives of 22 million people and lasted a little over a year.

Is it any wonder that, given the risks and lagging pay, nursing is facing a tremendous shortage? Other women-dominated fields, like teaching and childcare — vital for our economy to keep grinding, critical for our continued quality of life — show similar gender discrimination. We don’t value our women workers in these fields. We are asking too much for too little.

We must attack the wage gap without delay, by mandating equal representation and granting women full access to their constitutional rights. In this moment, when we can acutely see the need for skilled professionals, we must re-evaluate our public health planning and resolve to do better for Utah women.

The pandemic has shown us that our discriminatory practices are harming our families and our communities. We must develop the institutional will to reflect full equality and we must require it of those who seek to represent us.

If you want to thank a nurse, pay her fairly for her labor.

Kelly Whited Jones

Kelly Whited Jones is an educator in North Salt Lake. She holds a master’s degree in environmental and health communication from the University of Utah, teaches at the U. and Salt Lake Community College and serves on the executive committee for the Utah ERA Coalition.