Nurses at Jersey Shore University Medical Center and Southern Ocean Medical Center, part of the Hackensack Meridian Health System, voted overwhelmingly this week to authorize their bargaining committees to call a strike or another form of concerted activity if they are unable to reach an agreement.
The more than 1,500 nurses at the two hospitals are members of Health Professionals and Allied Employees, New Jersey’s largest health care union. The current contract expires on May 31.
HPAE President Debbie White, RN, said there were several major lessons learned during the coronavirus outbreak and the haphazard response. Moving forward White says it is imperative to develop a plan with standards for our hospital systems, including the HMH system, to be better prepared for the inevitable surge we see looming on the horizon.
“As we head into a busy holiday weekend, we have concerns that there could be a spike even sooner if people aren’t observing the strictest social distancing protocols,” White said. “Our nurses had a desperate need for PPE during this pandemic and were not well protected. Adding insult to injury, while many of them got sick and some died, employers were disciplining healthcare workers for persisting in discussing their safety concerns on the job.”
Healthcare workers who have sacrificed so much on the frontlines of the pandemic need state officials and employers like HMH to be ready for the next wave.
“That is why we want to negotiate formal ‘standard pandemic planning’ into this contract renewal so that nurses will have a voice in how PPE is acquired and distributed. In the event of another disease outbreak, we want weekly meetings with management to review available stock of personal protective equipment, staffing, fit-testing of PPEs, including plans for when someone fails a fit-test. We are fighting for this because we want our healthcare workers to have the ability to collaborate with management over supplies in any future pandemic, including a potential resurgent of the one we are currently facing.”
HMH hospitals, including Jersey Shore University Medical Center, have been the subject of several complaints to the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for putting healthcare workers’ safety at risk during the pandemic. Jersey Shore nurses complained to OSHA that their employer is consistently following unsafe practices and failing to provide sufficient personal protective equipment, like respirators, gloves and gowns. In a strongly worded letter, OSHA told the hospital that, while it is continuing its investigation of the complaints, HMH must stop retaliating against Jersey Shore nurses who point out safety concerns.
Last month, the Union filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board against HMH for unlawful discipline and termination of unionized healthcare workers and for retaliating against their workers who are not only providing care, but demanding to have the protective equipment they need to stay safe on the front lines. Earlier this month, the NLRB ruled in favor of HPAE, and against HMH, for failing to negotiate in good faith and failing to provide information to the union during contract negotiations in 2018.
“Our hardworking nurses want a good contract so we can continue doing what we are trained to do, which is care for our patients during a pandemic,” Adam Witt, president of HPAE Local 5058 at JSUMC, said.
Witt said there are many issues that they are grappling with at the bargaining table.
“An important one is that our employer wants to be able to send nurses, regardless of expertise, wherever they want, whenever they want. They call it ‘floating.’ We think that is irresponsible. You wouldn’t want your podiatrist to perform cardiac surgery. The same goes for nurses.”
In a historic turnout, members voted overwhelmingly to authorize their bargaining committees to take concerted actions if they are able to reach a deal with HMH.
Hackensack Meridian Health, a healthcare behemoth with 16 hospitals and other healthcare facilities, had total revenues of $5.9 billion in 2019.
Negotiations resume next week.
Major issues, according to the union members, are the establishment of pandemic planning standards, health and safety protections for nurses, and improved staffing. HPAE members also want to establish a transparency and oversight committee to work with management to solve problems in real time to address HMH’s new payroll and time off system.
Anna Pona, RN, President of HPAE Local 5138 at SOCM, said the overwhelming response of membership at both hospitals shows the impact that months spent on the frontlines of the global pandemic is having.
“Our heroic nurses have been sacrificing and putting themselves at risk caring for patients,” Pona said. “At the same time, we have had to struggle to get the resources we need to do the job safely.”