Nurses seeking to resolve stalled contract talks went on strike at hospitals in New Rochelle and Albany on Tuesday as COVID-19 hospitalizations rose across New York state.
Around 200 healthcare workers at Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital will strike for two days to demand the hospital to provide adequate protective equipment, ventilation, testing and other safety protocols to ensure the safety of staff and patients as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, according to the New York State Nurses Association.
The union that represents more than 42,000 members in the state says conditions in the hospital on Monday was "worrisome" because Montefiore started to relocate patients just a day before the strike is set to take place.
Nurses say they're scared for the patients as well as employees, some of whom contracted COVID-19 and one has died from the virus.
"It is really that detrimental to us to get a fair contract that we deserve. We worked right through COVID nonstop, tirelessly," said nurse Marcia Hayles.
"We are begging, we are pleading with administration for more staff because you just don't know what's going on in the units because you're not there, you don't walk through, you don't see the stress we are under — we need your help," said fellow nurse Shalon Matthews.
In response, Montefiore said it has offered "a good deal" to nurses in past contract negotiations over the past 18 months, including a 7 percent wage increase, tuition reimbursement of $7,500 per year, health insurance with no contributions and medical expenses for retired nurses, but NYSNA refused to accept.
Montefiore said that the strike is not coming at the right time. The hospital also said that it is prepared and well-equipped with PPE for the COVID surge, calling out the nurses association for "selfishly putting the community at risk and using COVID-19 as a political football."
The hospital's scathing statement accused the union of power-grabbing "to dictate staffing assignments and hand out plum positions to their friends," but workers claim Montefiore is unprepared for the second surge of coronavirus cases. It added that the hospital is stocked with 90 days of PPE for employees, contradicting nurses' claim.
Tracking Coronavirus in Tri-State
Among the nurses' top-priority demands are the hiring of more nurses and improvement in safe staffing enforcement, but the union says the hospital wanted it to drop those proposals.
“After so many bargaining sessions, their position on safe staffing still has not changed—they’re not willing to spend a dime to ensure we have enough nurses to safely care for our community," NYSNA leader at New Rochelle, Kathy Santioemma said in a news release.
"We have tried for 18 months to talk to them. We have tried to get them to agree to staff the hospital appropriately and they have not," said nurse David Nightingale. "We have a chronic staffing crisis that the hospital will not address ... our community deserves it and our patients deserve it. They deserve to have the best care, the same level of care that all the other Montefiore facilities have."
Workers began their strike Tuesday morning. Meanwhile, the Montefiore will remain open as it enacts a contingency plan to transfer patients to other facilities.
Meanwhile, nurses at Albany Medical Center Hospital began a 24-hour strike Tuesday over their deadlocked contract negotiations as well as complaints of inadequate coronavirus protocols. The Times Union reported that about 100 nurses were on the picket line shortly after 7 a.m.
Nurses at both hospitals are represented by the New York State Nurses Association, which filed a complaint with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Monday alleging that nurses at the Albany Medical Center are being forced to reuse N95 respirator masks as many as 20 times. That is far beyond the maximum of five times recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hospital officials have condemned the job actions.
“This is a painful day for Albany Med,” hospital spokesperson Matthew Markham said. “While some of our nurses have chosen to abandon their patients, even as coronavirus hospitalizations continue reaching record levels in the Capital Region, Albany Med will not abandon its mission.” He said temporary nurses were at the hospital to replace those who are striking.
The Journal News reports that Marcos Crespo, senior vice president of community affairs for Montefiore Medicine, criticized the union for “selfishly putting the community at risk and using COVID-19 as a political football” at a news conference Monday.
Crespo said patients would be moved to other facilities to ensure their safety.