ALBANY — Albany Medical Center’s unionized nurses are preparing for a one-day strike Dec. 1 amid unsuccessful contract negotiations and what they call an unsafe working environment.
Albany Med says it will have backup measures in place to ensure safe operation and patient care during what it called an irresponsible walkout by the one of the largest components of the patient-care team at the hospital.
Both presented their side to the news media Friday.
Albany Med’s nurses voted to unionize in April 2018 but the hospital and the New York State Nurses Association have been unable to agree on a contract since then.
Assorted rallies by the union and responses by the hospital have sprinkled the intervening 30 months. The union halted its campaign during the height of the COVID crisis (except for complaints about availability of personal protective equipment) but has been ramping it up since, with a strike authorization vote in September, public rallies in September and October, and now setting a date for the strike.
In response Friday, Albany Med management noted that the COVID pandemic has been rebounding as the union was ratcheting up its pressure and is now in its second wave. The hospital on Friday had 40 COVID-positive inpatients.
“A strike in the middle of a pandemic for baseless reasons is totally irresponsible,” CEO Dr. Dennis McKenna said at a news conference.
A number of issues underlay the tension between nurses and hospitals, above and beyond the stresses created by the pandemic. Most notable among them is staffing — the union has long sought minimum staffing standards at hospitals on the contention that nurses are stretched too thin to provide adequate care.
The New York State Nurses Association accusations against Albany Med on Friday focused again on staffing levels as well as safety and infection control. It alleged that:
- Protective masks are being reused and staff members are being infected;
- COVID patients are sometimes co-mingled with non-COVID patients.
- COVID patients are spread all over the hospital.
- More than 200 nurses have left the hospital because it is falling apart at the seams.
Albany Med replied that:
- The masks are disinfected with ultraviolet light or hydrogen peroxide in a manner approved by state and federal regulators, and which is used by 90 percent of New York hospitals.
- COVID patients are identified and isolated upon admission.
- Nurses are continually leaving the hospital for various reasons; the turnover is about the same now as in previous years.
McKenna additionally stated that:
- Albany Med has reached agreement with the union on 80 points in good faith during 74 bargaining sessions.
- The sticking points for the two sides appear to be wages, health benefits and whether Albany Med will be an open or closed union shop.
- The proposed contract the two sides reached and which the union membership rejected this week was put to a rush vote with not enough time for nurses to digest a 120-page legal document, and the union blocked some nurses from voting to engineer the rejection sought by the union and a vocal minority of nurses.
- Albany Med does offer competitive wages and compensation; while it did delay a 3 percent merit raise for six months during the COVID crisis, it did not furlough or lay off a single employee, unlike 97 percent of U.S. hospitals.
McKenna encouraged nurses to cross the picket line if their union does strike Dec. 1, and said he believed some would.
With these nurses, and with a team of temporary nonunion nurses that will be brought in, the region’s largest hospital will be able to provide care, he said.
Chief Operating Officer Frances Spreer Albert said the sight of a picket line might be unsettling but patients should not hesitate to come into the hospital.
The nurses association announced Thursday its nurses would strike for two days at a downstate hospital where another protracted contract deadlock is underway.
In the Capital Region, the nurses association also represents nurses at Ellis Medicine in Schenectady and Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville.
Littauer nurses staged a brief strike in 2016 but have since reached a contract agreement.
Ellis nurses held a raucous informational picket highlighting staffing levels and other grievances in February. Public disagreements soon ceased, as Ellis Hospital entered crisis mode. The two sides subsequently ratified a new contract.