SCHENECTADY — Union nurses chanted, paced and tried not to freeze Friday as they rallied support for increased nurse staffing at hospitals.
Several dozen members of the New York State Nurses Association and supporters held an informational picket outside Ellis Hospital in the morning and Bellevue Woman’s Center in the afternoon.
Both are operated by Ellis Medicine, which is in protracted negotiations with NYSNA. Ellis nurses have been working under a contract extension for more than a year.
They are advocating for themselves and their patients, but there was a larger context Friday: State legislation that would specify and mandate minimum nurse-patient staffing ratios at hospitals has a chance to advance through the state Legislature again this year, after years of stalling out at Republican roadblocks.
Now that Democrats control all levels of state government, the legislation may have a better chance. It is a dear wish of the nurses union and is deeply opposed by the hospital industry.
The measure did not advance very far in 2019, even with the all-Democratic legislative leadership and a Democratic governor who has expressed support for the idea. The matter was instead handed to the state Department of Health, which was instructed to study the issues surrounding mandated nurse staffing ratios. It said Friday its work is nearly complete.
“The Department is finalizing the study and is reviewing information that may impact the analysis and report’s findings. We expect the report to be released shortly,” a spokeswoman said.
Friday’s rally included the standard props: Giant inflatable rat, “Tax the Rich” stickers, drums to set the beat for the chants. Plastic clappers were also issued to marchers, which was good, because barehanded applause would have been too painful in the cold.
Passing motorists, including city police and firefighters, honked their support, drowning out the speakers at times.
NYSNA President Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, who represents more than 40,000 nurses, said staffing is a matter everybody needs to be concerned about.
“It’s not just about us, it’s about our patients because everybody will be a patient one day,” she told the rally.
Patricia Donohue of Rotterdam, a recovery room nurse who leads NYSNA at Ellis Hospital, told The Gazette that the nursing shortage hospital managers blame for short staffing is real, but it exists because of the pay and working conditions hospitals create — these things hinder recruitment and retention.
“There is a significant nursing shortage and without nurses you can’t have a hospital,” she said. “Nurses are the front-line caregivers of a hospital. Without enough, patients aren’t getting the kind of care they deserve.”
Donahue was born at Ellis, has worked there 39 years and is the granddaughter of a 1926 graduate of Ellis’ nursing school.
“So I’m an Ellis girl,” she said. “This is our community hospital and we’re proud of it, and we want this to be a great place for patients to come and get care. But we need nurses.”
Cathy Lucas of Niskayuna, who graduated from Ellis Nursing School over 40 years ago and has worked at Ellis ever since, said there are enough nurses on hand to ensure adequate care in surgery and recovery, where she works. But she said she has been stretched too thin in previous assignments, such as when she would have eight cardiology patients at once.
“It was unsafe. To do the bare minimum, pass your meds and charts, it was unacceptable,” she said.
It also discourages young nurses just starting out.
“Taking care of eight patients is impossible, and if they think that’s going to be their professional life they have to rethink what they thought they were going to do,” Lucas said.
Ellis Medicine responded to Friday’s rally with a statement that complimented the nurses’ skill and professionalism but avoided direct mention of staffing ratios, either on the local level or at the statewide legislative level:
“Ellis Medicine’s nursing team and all of our employees deliver an exceptionally high level of care and compassion to our patients, and Ellis offers highly competitive wages and benefits in recognition of those skills and expertise and to attract and retain the very best healthcare professionals.
“We respect the rights of our unionized nurses to picket as part of the ongoing contract negotiations, and we remain committed to bargaining in good faith with the goal of achieving a contract that is fair, competitive and financially feasible in today’s challenging healthcare environment.”
At the Ellis rally, NYSNA also called out Albany Medical Center, where it is locked in another long-running contract stalemate. Albany Med issued a similarly broad response to the rally.
“Albany Med has been negotiating in good faith for more than a year to achieve a contract that is fair to all of our nurses and our other employees. Albany Med staffs according to national benchmarks for academic medical centers. 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 Healthcare Association of New York State, which represents New York hospitals, had no comment for this story but has repeatedly and firmly voiced its opposition to mandated minimum staffing.
Opponents sometimes cite California’s first-in-the nation minimum staffing law as an example of why inflexible ratios don’t work. Studies on the effectiveness of California’s rules appear to paint a mixed picture on effectiveness.
LEGISLATORS WEIGH IN
The two state Assembly members who represent Schenectady — Phil Steck of Colonie and Angelo Santabarbera — are both Democrats and both strongly in favor of state-mandated minimum nurse staffing ratios. Both attended Friday’s rally outside Ellis.
Steck, who sits on the Assembly Committee on Health, said: “I think we could get the bill passed in both houses this year. I support the bill, I want it passed, I’m not a believer in studies and committees. I think we should pass the bill and move forward.”
He added: “Those of us who believe in democracy in the workplace, you can’t just have management setting the staffing levels.”
Asked whether a labor union might set staffing levels just as unreasonably as management might, Steck noted that the ratios would be set by the Department of Health under current proposals, with input from nurses and other stakeholders.
“This idea that managers know everything and the people who actually do the work know nothing is very mistaken,” he said. “Usually it’s the people on the ground who know more.”
Asked whether requiring hospitals to boost their nursing payrolls might cause financial distress to the institutions (many of which operate on a slim margin and all of which are nonprofits, by state law), Santabarbara said: “My answer to that is, what’s more important than the health of the community? You may have to spend more to meet those standards, but those standards will ensure quality health care.”
Asked if that wouldn’t be one more unfunded mandate out of Albany — here’s a great idea, go pay for it — Santabarbara said the state should, in fact, provide the money.
“Once this bill is passed, and I hope it is passed, it will be fully funded because there’s nothing more important than health care. Hospitals and the state must prioritize it.”
He added: “What I’ve heard back from hospitals is that they prefer to do it on their own. Well, they’re not doing it on their own.”