Albany Medical Center nurses union plans Tuesday strike over safety concerns

In this file photo, nurses gather during a prayer vigil held in support of Albany Medical Center nurses in their fight for a new contract on the steps of Albany City Hall last December. (Erica Miller/Staff Photographer)

In this file photo, nurses gather during a prayer vigil held in support of Albany Medical Center nurses in their fight for a new contract on the steps of Albany City Hall last December. (Erica Miller/Staff Photographer)

Nurses at Albany Medical Center plan to strike Tuesday as they demand a new contract – now two years in negotiating – and call for improved pandemic safety precautions at one of the region’s major hospital centers.

The 24-hour strike is set to begin Tuesday morning; the nurses hope the strike draws attention to safety concerns they argue are putting Albany Med staff and patients at risk and bolster their efforts to finalize a contract with the hospital.

The New York State Nurses Association, a union representing the Albany Med nurses, on Monday also filed a federal workplace safety complaint, accusing Albany Medical Center of forcing nurses to regularly reuse N95 masks and other insufficient safety practices. (The nurses voted to form a union two years ago and have been working to negotiate a contract ever since.)

“We believe these practices create an immediate threat of harm to nurses and patients and should be immediately remedied,” the nursing association said in a statement Monday. “Albany Med must address their health and safety concerns and settle a fair contract that protects patients and nurses.”

The complaint, filed with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Agency, alleges the hospital “exposed dozens of staff to COVID-19 as a result of lack of hazard controls” and failed to test patients and protect staff from potentially contagious patients. The complaint claims at least 50 staff members have been exposed to the virus since March.

The nurses association in the complaint said Albany Med nurses use N95 masks as many as 20 times, citing CDC and manufacturer guidelines recommending against such repeated use. The complaint alleges Albany Med was failing to remove dirty and compromised masks from its supply, not allowing nurses to maintain the same mask after they were sanitized, and allowing masks to be used after the proper fit had been compromised.

The nursing association also publicized an expert report bolstering its assertions that Albany Med’s practices may be putting patient and staff health at risk. The report from health consultant Edward Olmstead, based on the first-hand accounts of Albany Med nurses, highlights nurse reports that patients are not properly distanced and points of possible infection still exist as patients are moved around the hospital. The report also claims some COVID-19 patients are placed in rooms that do not provided the negative pressure capabilities of isolation rooms meant to mitigate infectious diseases.

“Based on the review of those [complaints from nurses], it is my professional opinion that the nurses at Albany Medical Center have been placed at unreasonable risk of exposure to COVID-19 while performing their jobs,” Olmstead wrote in his findings.

In a statement provided by a hospital spokesperson, Albany Med dismissed the allegations outlined in the complaint and said its PPE practices comply with relevant guidance.

“Albany Med’s safe reprocessing of PPE follows state and federal guidance and is only one part of our strategy to ensure an adequate supply,” according to the statement. “We would be happy to continue negotiations with [the nurses association] when the union believes it has an offer worth discussing. Until then, we will continue serving our community safely and qualitatively. As the number of coronavirus hospitalizations reaches the highest level of the pandemic, we will not abandon our patients.”

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This certainly sounds like Albany Med. refuses to recognize or negotiate a collective bargain agreement with the nurses since day 1 . Sometimes the only means to have an employer start taking issues seriously is through the power to strike. I stand with all of the nurses. I hope others will do the same.

I support the nurses. Often those on the front lines have a much clearer understanding and more compassion than those who are worried about pennies. Albany Med’s statement regarding an offer worth discussing is indicative of the dismissive nature of their approach to the concerns raised by the nurses and patients.

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