With contract negotiations at an impasse for 21 months, nurses at Westchester Medical Center have taken to social media to encourage their fellow unionized nurses to not fill vacant shifts through outside nursing agencies.
The appeal, made by the New York State Nurses Association’s unit at the medical center, debuted at the association’s statewide convention in Manhattan on Oct. 18. It remains live on the association’s Facebook page and on the union’s statewide website.
The video is targeted for NYSNA members who may work in other tertiary-care hospitals in the region, such as Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, who would be looking for a part-time gig to pick up some extra hours.
Nurses at the hospital say there has been an increased need for agency nurses, following layoffs of 140 nurses in December, 2011. About 1,400 nurses remain at the medical center.
“We don’t want NYSNA nurses to be aiding and abetting management,” said Christine LaPerche, a medical center nurse, and member of the NYSNA executive committee at the Valhalla medical campus. “We are public nurses, so we can’t strike. It seemed like nurses were coming in, crossing our imaginary picket line.”
Hospital administrators have said that employee costs – with their bountiful benefit packages – have put the medical center at a competitive disadvantage with their peer institutions in the region. Those costs include public pensions, and health-care benefits that include no premium payments by the nurses.
Medical center spokesman David Billig says the hospital uses agency nurses “sparingly.”
“While we employ nearly 1,500 nurses, sometimes calling in an agency nurse is required to address a more immediate staffing need,” he said in a written statement. “Still, we use agency nurses sparingly. It is a very expensive form of staffing but it is sometimes necessary.”
He said the hospital recruited “more than 50” nurses in 2012 to replace nurses who retired or found jobs elsewhere. In 2013, the hospital created 55 new nursing positions to staff expanded units or to handle increased patient volume.
“To ensure safe patient care, we monitor staffing levels around the clock to address the ebb and flow of patients into and within the organization and for longer-term increases in service line volume,” Billig said.
The video features interviews with several medical center nurses, who paint a troubling picture of health care at the Hudson Valley’s regional trauma center and hospital for advanced medical care.
One nurse, Daminga Grant, recounts that staffing is so low at the Behavioral Health Center that nurses have gotten injured in tussles with patients. Another nurse, Sam Caquias, notes that medical center nurses have filed more than 4,000 “protest of assignments” since 2012 because they believe the assignments are unsafe.
Grant looks straight into the camera and tells her fellow unionized nurses: “Don’t come to Westchester and work as an agency nurse.”
Billig told Tax Watch that the “protest of assignment” forms are internal NYSNA documents that aren’t part of the hospital’s regulatory framework, and that are not necessarily shared with the administration. He said the medical center is not understaffed.
“Our staffing levels across the entire patient care team, including nurses, are considered well within industry standards for the type of patients we care for,” he said.
The video also mentions the sizable salaries earned by medical center administrators. Tax Watch has recently documented the state’s most generous bonus program in New York state’s public sector, with CEO Michael Israel and 11 vice presidents sharing close to $1 million in bonuses in 2012. In 2013, Israel, whose base pay is $1 million, qualified for an additional bonus of $725, 000, which he was granted for staying on the job for five years. Israel has deferred receiving the bonus, which delays any tax liability as the payment earns interest on the medical center’s books.
LaPerche says negotiations broke down in December, 2011 when the hospital rejected the” nurses’ offer of an estimated $7 million in givebacks, which included paying for part of their health-insurance premiums.
“We kept getting ping-ponged,” she said. “We’d make concessions, and they’d then turn around and want more.”
Two years later, the hospital’s financial situation has dramatically improved. But that improvement has changed the nurses’ bargaining posture, LaPerche said.
“Back in 2011, we understood the financial crunch,” she said.”Maybe it wasn’t as much of a crunch they were in. Was there really a reason to be giving it all back?”
Nurses at Westchester Medical Center are public employees, so their labor activism is governed by the Taylor Law, which prohibits strikes, and penalizes workers for two days pay for every day they are out on strike. But the flip-side of the Taylor Law are state provisions that allows the current contract to remain in force, with employees allowed step increase for longevity on the job.
Medical center administrators lament the fact that the hospital’s nurses are among the highest paid in the region. LaPerche agrees that their compensation is quite competitive in the region. But she says that dates back to the mid-1990s, when the medical center was having trouble recruiting nurses.
At the time, she said salaries were raised, and experienced nurses were credited with up to25 years of experience to place them at the high end of the nurses’ salary scale.
“They couldn’t get nurses to work here,” said LaPerche. “They needed to raise the salaries.”