ALBANY — Nurses donned red shirts and chanted slogans outside Albany Medical Center on Wednesday, seeking public support in their protracted contract talks with the region’s largest hospital.
The sticking point is a familiar one: time and money. The nurses and their union, the New York State Nurses Association, want higher pay and don't want to be spread so thin, with each nurse caring for so many patients on a given shift.
Multiple nurses and union leaders in the sidewalk informational picket along New Scotland Avenue complained bitterly about the staffing levels, charging that the hospital is trying to save money on personnel costs by working their existing employees harder.
The staffing issue is pretty clear cut: On its website, just in the last three weeks, Albany Med has posted several dozen nursing vacancies it would like to fill. Therefore, it is demonstrably short of the staffing level it would like to maintain.
A hospital spokesman confirmed that the hospital is short-staffed. He also noted that most hospitals are: The hospital industry association’s estimate is that hospitals in New York state on average are 10 percent short of their ideal nursing corps. The fact that Albany Med is seeking to hire dozens of nurses shows it is committed to the fullest staffing possible amid a national shortage of nurses, its spokesman said.
The issue of compensation is less clear-cut, because it is salary as well as benefits. Some nurses said Albany Med’s salary scale is complicated and unfair, with new hires sometimes paid more than nurses with five or ten years’ service as a recruiting tool. They added that turnover is high as nurses vote with their feet.
The registered nurses at Albany Med voted 1,161-582 to unionize in April 2018.
Organizers attempting to win unionization complained about hospital management’s behavior before the vote. This prompted Gov. Andrew Cuomo (then facing a primary challenge from a vociferously progressive Democrat) to order an investigation at Albany Med and order a reminder sent to hospitals statewide about the need for them to maintain safe staffing levels and for them not to impede the right of employees to organize.
On Wednesday, Karen Gerstenberger, a member of the NYSNA negotiating committee, said the hospital and the union had agreed on about 90 percent of a contract but the hospital will not budge on salary matters.
“Our biggest issue is loss of staff,” she said. “We have a very poor retention rate in the hospital. We are asking the hospital to give us a fair contract that gives us competitive wages and benefits so that we can retain staff. Currently nurses can go [to other hospitals] within an hour’s drive and get significantly better wages and benefits.”
Gerstenberger, a Colonie resident and 35-year employee of Albany Med, said the hospital reports it is 10 percent short on its nursing staff but she thinks it be even shorter than that.
Albany Med in a written statement said the nurses rally had no impact on patient care Wednesday. It also said:
“Albany Med has been negotiating in good faith for more than a year to achieve a contract that is fair to all of our employees and to all of our nurses. We cannot agree to any deal so costly that it endangers our ability to deliver the highest quality health care to people in our region. All decisions, on staffing and every other aspect of our hospital, are made to ensure we deliver the highest quality care to our patients in the safest possible environment.”
The union and its members made the point repeatedly that this is a matter of human dignity and health, rather than something like a production line at a factory. Nurses provide care for sick and hurting people, they said, and short staffing gives them less time with each patient.
Registered nurse Andrew DeGiacomo, a nine-year veteran at Albany Med, worked three straight 12-hour shifts over this past weekend. Each overnight nurse has his or her own way of staying wide awake and sharp for so many hours (his is black Dunkin coffee) but there are pieces of the process that get compromised, he said.
“It was so unsafe … patients were being transferred to me without appropriate information. It made me very nervous.”
DeGiacomo said he gets complaints from patients that they got a slow response or no response at all when they pressed the call button.
“All the time. I actually broke down and almost cried on Sunday morning because we were short staffed, and I went to see a patient who was in so much pain, and he told me and I believed him that he had rung out several times. But you know what? I had a Code Blue going on around the corner in another room.
“It’s not my fault. But you still cry. Because you hate to see people suffering needlessly. They’re in pain, and you can’t take care of them. They sitting in [feces].”
At Wednesday’s picket, the phrase “safe staffing” was used repeatedly on signs and in statements. Nurses unions have been stymied so far in their efforts to secure state legislation that would mandate a minimum caregiver-to-patient ratio at hospitals.
Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, a member of the Assembly’s Health Committee, said the bill is not a certain prospect even now, with Democrats firmly in control of all branches of state government for the last nine months.
“I think its prospects are ‘possible.’ I think it’s too early to tell," Steck said. "Obviously the hospitals lobby against it. But the nurses feel very strongly.”
Steck joined the rally Wednesday to show support for NYSNA. He said the trend in much of the American business world is to extract more work from each worker without a significant increase in compensation is. That is, in his opinion, one of the factors that led Albany Med nurses to vote to unionize by a ratio of better than 2-1.
“This is a huge problem in the country,” he said.
And it’s a circular problem: nurses need expensive higher education (industry trends are pushing them to hold four-year degrees) and get stagnant wages to pay off student loans for that education.
Steck makes the point to business leaders that business and economics are two different things: While payroll cuts can boost one business’ bottom line for a while, if enough businesses do this the economy suffers because there’s not enough consumer dollars to fuel it. Then businesses feel the impact, individually or collectively.
He said the fact that New York hospitals are nonprofits with a different type of bottom line doesn’t stop them from paying exorbitant salaries to their CEOs while holding the line on their workers’ compensation.
“Obviously, they got upset,” he said of Albany Med’s nurses.