By Sam Capuano and Hannah Rosenberg
In the beginning of Feb., nurses at South Shore University Hospital (SSUH) on Long Island seemed one step closer to following in the footsteps of New York City nurses of Mount Sinai Hospital who went on strike in early Jan. The 800 nurses of SSUH in Bay Shore had planned to strike on Feb. 27, unless a new agreement was reached with New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA).
The SSUH nurses’ contract expired in Feb., and their demands for amendments to their contracts were not being met in their negotiations with NYSNA. These demands included better salaries and safe staffing.
“If the hospital enforced safe staffing ratios, I would be confident that I could go to work every day and practice safely, but we’ve tried to negotiate so many times, and the hospital still won’t honor our requests,” said Jennifer Scimone, a registered nurse at SSUH, in a press release from NYSNA. “It’s nerve-wracking to go on strike, but at this point it’s necessary because it’s the only way left for us to be heard. We’ve worked hard our whole career to care and advocate for our patients, so we’re not willing to lower our voices and settle for what is unacceptable and unsafe.”
Luckily, the nurses of SSUH were able to reach an agreement with NYSNA on Feb. 23, and therefore did not need to go on strike. The agreement called for enforcement of safe staffing standards, salary increases, including experience pay and improvements to retiree health benefits.
Though the nurses at SSUH were able to get NYSNA to reach their demands and avoid a strike, this is not always the case. In The Schreiber Times’ interview with Nicole Rosenberg, a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City who belongs to the same union as the nurses of SSUH, highlighted some of the current issues faced by nurses across America and details of what a strike would have looked like.
Every three years, the New York hospitals which belong to the nurses’ union NYSNA renegotiate their contracts. There are representatives for the nurse communities of each hospital which meet with the higher administration of hospitals, and discuss the various aspects of the contract. These negotiations happen over weeks until they reach a conclusion. Because the contract is renegotiated every three years, the contract for Mount Sinai’s nurses was due on Jan. 1. The negotiations start about two or three months prior to the due date.
According to Rosenberg, in these negotiations, NYSNA representatives and the nurses of Mount Sinai discussed salaries, retirement benefits, health insurance benefits, and most importantly, safe staffing.
“There are a lot of staffing issues across the country in hospitals. In our hospital in particular, there were seven hundred vacancies across the system, and 500 of them were in the individual hospital I work at,” said Rosenberg. “There are also unsafe nurse-to-patient ratios. Each type of unit has a ratio that they are supposed to follow which is set by the administration and NYSNA, based on what is the safest for the patient. What was starting to happen is that we were having low staffing because people felt the working environment was unsafe, which led to even more patients per staff member. It is unsafe for the patient but also for the nurse—you could harm the patient physically, and there are legal implications.”
The Radonda Vaught homicide case served as an example of the potential risks when nurses are put in conditions which are unmanageable, including the staffing issues which have only worsened since the pandemic. On Friday, Mar. 25, Vaught was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide after administering an incorrect medication. Many nurses rushed to Vaught’s defense following the discussion of the events in the news, even creating a plea for her clemency which quickly reached the top of Change.org, a petition website.
“We are human, and nurses have to go into work with this fear that we might not only kill someone and lose our jobs, but also go to jail and lose our license and be the next news story. So that was the biggest issue for us—all the stuff in the media painting nurses as greedy when really, nurses have the right to negotiate for better benefits, especially given the fact that inflation is rising, and the conditions that we are under are going downhill. All we want is to not have to deal with as many patients as we are right now because of the staffing issues, because we just can’t administer the same level of care and caution. It’s just not possible,” said Rosenberg.
According to Rosenberg, on the night of the Mount Sinai strike, nurses received messages from their union representative, and at around 4 a.m., announced that the nurses would officially be going on strike that morning. The week before the strike, the representative had the nurses sign up for four hour shifts on the picket line, in case it did happen. The nurses didn’t go into work for a week, which meant Mount Sinai had no employees.
“Unfortunately, this meant patients did not have nurses, but this is sort of the point—not to mention, it was going to be unsafe whether we were there or not because of the conditions,” said Rosenberg.
The nurses gave management a two week notice before the strike, so the hospital knew they were not going to have employees unless they agreed to the demands of the nurses. They spent $2 million dollars on hiring travel nurses to fill the positions of the striking nurses.
“In the end, they ended up meeting the nurses’ demands, including those demanding better medical insurance, salaries, improvements for the staffing issues, and retirement benefits. This was a huge win,” said Rosenberg.
As the contracts of nurses across the country expire, it is likely that more strikes will occur. The goal of the nurses’ unions is now to experience successes similar to that of the SSUH and Mount Sinai nurses, and prevent risks to the well-being of both patients and nurses.