Nurses at the Bellevue Woman’s Center formally petitioned Ellis management on Thursday to legally recognize their membership in the New York State Nurses Association following what they say is a drastic change in the model of care at the women’s hospital that has them worried for their patients.
When St. Clare’s Hospital in Schenectady closed and the Bellevue Woman’s Center reorganized to become part of the Ellis Medicine operation in 2007, something “unusual” happened, they said.
The nurses at St. Clare’s who joined Ellis Hospital were able to join the same union that generations of Ellis nurses had been part of since the 1960s. But the nurses at Bellevue, a women’s hospital on Route 7 in Niskayuna that has been around since 1931, were told they would lose their seniority if they unionized.
“When you have someone who’s invested 20, 25, 30 years of their life building up seniority, which comes with the pay scale and the benefits, it’s hard to look at losing that,” said Christine Walthers, a nurse at Bellevue. “But they were promised: ‘Don’t worry, you don’t need to be in the union. You’ll be treated the same way with the same benefits and the same voice as the nurses with a union contract.’ ”
The nurses say they have learned that a verbal promise doesn’t hold much weight.
NYSNA, the largest association for nurses in the state and the same union that represents their Ellis colleagues at the Nott Street campus, organized a speak-out on the sidewalk in front of Ellis Hospital on Thursday. Members of the community and local union representatives flanked nurses in red NYSNA scrubs as they made their case to the public. The nurses say they took the action after hospital management repeatedly ignored their concerns and requests for a meeting.
The problem started earlier this year, said Walthers. She said Ellis management told Bellevue staff that it was implementing a new model of care known as mother-baby. Under this model, nurses who previously cared for only mothers after birth are now required to care for both mother and child after birth, and nurses who previously cared for only newborns after birth are now required to care for mother and baby as well.
It was an alarming change, she said, adding that Bellevue’s previous model of care seemed to have worked for years and earned the center high regards in the community.
“We are not arguing with change, though,” said Walthers at the speak-out Thursday. “That is inevitable. It’s not the change that we are opposed to — it’s how it’s being managed. We want it done in a safe and organized way by giving us the training that our patients deserve.”
Nurses were scared that they didn’t have the right training to care for newborns, which are especially vulnerable in the first 24 to 48 hours of life. So they met with Cece Lynch, chief nursing officer at Ellis Medicine, and she put two Bellevue managers in charge of the transition to the new care model, said Victoria Decker, a Bellevue nurse of 24 years.
“And then what happened recently is they have fired both of those managers,” she said. “So now we’re left without management, without guidance. They also got rid of the supervisor in the operating room, who had been there for 47 years. You need someone who’s very qualified and very trained to make sure that a newborn is cared for and now we’re afraid that they’re putting us in that position without a plan in place to say this is how you do this.”
When asked for comment Thursday about a number of these statements, Ellis Medicine replied with the following email and refused further comment: “Ellis Medicine has not received any official requests regarding the issue being picketed. We always value the opinion of our employees and are open to listening to any of their thoughts or concerns. Ellis Medicine stands behind the high quality of care it provides on all of its campuses. The way our care is delivered on all of our campuses is evidenced-based and we are fortunate to have highly skilled and caring medical-dental and nursing staffs.”
Bellevue nurses have other concerns, too, they said Thursday. Like many other hospitals in the nation, they face staff shortages and are asked to care for as many as 10 or 12 patients at a time. Such a workload means that no matter how hard they work, some patient somewhere is going to get short shrift, they said.
The nurses said they believe that joining the union would also help them with concerns not related to patient safety. Walthers said management recently notified the nursing staff that two of their personal days were being cut. And while nurses at the main campus could fight such a decision, Bellevue nurses can’t.
“You know, whenever we refer to ourselves as Bellevue, Bellevue, Bellevue, we’re told in no uncertain terms that we are not Bellevue nurses — we are Ellis nurses,” said Walthers. “But then it’s like, you can’t talk out both sides of your mouth. We can’t be Ellis nurses when you want to come and change our model of care in this huge way and Bellevue nurses when you want to take things away.”
Before the speak-out Thursday, the group of Bellevue nurses and NYSNA representatives delivered a formal petition to the office of Ellis Medicine CEO Jim Connolly that had the signatures of 105 out of a total 125 Bellevue nurses. They also delivered a petition signed by a long list of community members, elected officials, local unions, businesses and institutions urging the hospital to work collaboratively with the nurses to ensure that Bellevue continues to be an outstanding place to receive care.
Carol Ann Lemon, a nurse at Ellis, was a St. Clare’s transplant. She worked as a registered nurse at the hospital on McClellan Street before it closed, and was then transferred to Ellis’ main campus on Nott Street. Six months after the merger, she was laid off. But she was a member of NYSNA, and they fought for two years to get her her job back.
“They don’t have a voice,” she said of Bellevue nurses. “And they need to get a voice. It’s not only about protection, either. In this instance, it is about patient safety. I could be a patient over there some day. My sister could be a patient over there one day. My mother could be a patient over there one day. These nurses are not just doing it for themselves. They’re doing it for the patients.”