Nurses around the Capital Region took their fight over staffing levels to the streets Wednesday in an effort to mount public pressure on management at three area hospitals as they continue difficult contract negotiations.
Outfitted with red union shirts, whistles, hand clappers and signs, nurses walked picket lines Wednesday afternoon in front of Ellis Medicine in Schenectady, Bellevue Woman’s Center in Niskayuna and Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville. It was the first-ever multi-hospital picket organized by the New York State Nurses Association, which represents more than 750 nurses across the three hospitals.
All three hospitals have been in protracted negotiations with the union for months — in some cases years — to agree on new contracts. The negotiation with Littauer is at a near-impasse, as the two sides have traded barbs in recent months over unfair labor practice charges and alleged misinformation campaigns.
Their No. 1 priority, nurses said Wednesday, is to make sure safe staffing guidelines end up in their new contracts. At Ellis, nurses said management has never allowed staffing guidelines in the contract before and has refused to consider it at all this time around.
“Right now, they’re unwilling to even talk about putting it in a contract,” said Carol Ann Lemon, a nurse at Ellis Health Center on McClellan Street and central regional director of NYSNA’s board of directors. “They’ve said under no circumstances, we’re not discussing this. They say it’s completely up to them. It’s under their purview what staffing should and shouldn’t be.”
Nurses have advocated for mandatory nurse-to-patient staffing ratios at hospitals across the country for some time now, but opponents say mandatory ratios would inevitably drive up costs with no guarantee of better care.
Lemon pointed to nurses in Ellis’ Intensive Care Unit who are “constantly tripled” — or required to take on three patients at once.
“These are patients on ventilators, on multiple drips to regulate their blood pressure,” she said. “These are the sickest of the sick, almost knocking on death’s door. So I implore people to think about their loved ones in the ICU. Would you want your loved one to have a nurse when they need one, should they turn on a dime and start to crash? If that nurse is handling three critically ill patients at once, what are you supposed to do? Get help from another nurse who also has three patients of her own?”
Lemon said the turnover rate among nurses at Ellis is high, around 17 percent, because of burnout over patient volume. She said it costs about $82,000 to recruit and hire a new nurse.
Safe staffing levels is NYSNA’s first priority as it negotiates new contracts at the three area hospitals, union representatives said, but they’re also fighting for more community input on patient care and wages to be brought up to statewide levels.
On average, registered nurses in the Capital Region earn $28.74 an hour — well below both the state level of $36.29 an hour and the national level of $33.13 an hour, according to figures released this summer by the U.S. Department of Labor.
“I don’t want to say that we’ve reached an impasse,” Lemon said. “I won’t say that. But two sessions ago the hospital’s attorney told us that our proposals were B.S. He literally called them ‘B.S. proposals.’ This is why we’re out here. We’re asking for some respect. We are highly trained professional nurses trying to do the best we can to advocate for the patients.”
Ellis has been negotiating with the union since January. Hospital management, in a statement issued Wednesday, said it respects the union’s right to organize an informational picket and it will continue to work hard to reach an agreement that is fair to nurses and helps ensure the hospital’s financial health.
“During these negotiations, Ellis Medicine continues to provide our nurses with the same salaries and benefits,” the statement said. “We are committed to working with NYSNA to reach an agreement that puts our patients first, while achieving the right balance between meeting the needs of our employees and their families and securing the financial future of Ellis Medicine.”
Ellis management is also in the midst of negotiating a separate contract for newly unionized nurses at Bellevue Woman’s Center. Bellevue nurses voted overwhelmingly last winter to join NYSNA’s ranks after hospital management implemented a new model of care at the Niskayuna hospital — “mother-baby” — that would have added more patients to a nurse’s load.
Tensions may be highest at Littauer, where the union and management appear to be at a deadlock. The two sides have been in negotiations for nearly two years to replace a contract that expired at the end of 2013.
Over the summer, they filed charges against each other with the National Labor Relations Board, each alleging the other side was just going through the motions with no intention of reaching an agreement. Both sides withdrew those charges, but not before the union inaccurately claimed the NLRB had dismissed the hospital’s charges.
On Wednesday, hospital management admitted that after 18 negotiating sessions they seem to be at a deadlock.
“The hospital’s fair and final offer has been ‘on the table’ since June,” the hospital said in a statement. “The union’s positions have only moved in the opposite direction, so we are even farther apart from where we were in June. No matter what the union may say or do, they will not convince us to make the wrong decisions for our hospital. Our patients, the 85 percent of our employees not represented by the nurses’ union and the communities we serve are relying on us to be there for them. Also, we believe a public debate is not helpful to our nurses as we strive to reach an agreement.”
NYSNA has staged informational pickets at these hospitals in the past, but never at once. Local leaders and government officials turned out Wednesday or offered statements of support in a news release issued later in the day. They included assemblymen Phil Steck and Angelo Santabarbara, Niskayuna town Supervisor Joe Landry, state Senate candidate Madelyn Thorne, Schenectady Area Labor Federation President Frank Natalie and Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State Executive Director Sara Niccoli.