Last year, when JNESO AFL-CIO District 1 won their epic one-month nurses’ strike against St. Michael’s Hospital in Newark that’s owned by Prime Healthcare Services, a for-profit hospital chain with facilities in 14 states, it was a hailed as a major win for the New Jersey union movement.
Throughout their strike, which played out during the wane of the pandemic, the 350 striking nurses converted community admiration for their courage during COVID into support where it mattered on the picket line.
“We got a lot of community support but the Mayor [Baraka] never came out but his mother [Amina Baraka] did and so did Senator Cory Booker,” Elfrieda Johnson, president of JNESO AFL-CIO District 1, told InsiderNJ at the time.
That major win was made all the sweeter when this spring the union leadership got an invitation to join Gov. Phil Murphy and New Jersey AFL-CIO Charlie Wowkanech to be part of a photo-op for the signing of A4772/S3215, which would ensure workers on strike could collect unemployment benefits.
“Unemployment insurance benefits should be a universal right for individuals who have recently lost their jobs, are unable to find work, or are currently in the middle of a labor dispute,” said Governor Murphy, in a statement at the time. “These benefits are crucial to allow individuals going through this process the support they need to continue to take care of themselves and their families during difficult times. This Administration will continue to stand up for the rights of workers who are the backbone of our state’s economy.”
“Workers and their families often struggle financially when they go on strike to protest injustice in the workplace. Going on strike is a very difficult decision, but it is sometimes necessary when workers are pushed to their limits” said Wowkanech, in a statement. “This law will help ease that financial hardship and we applaud Governor Murphy for standing with working people and enacting this legislation.”
“The signing of this legislation is a major win for labor, it levels the playing field at the bargaining table and provides relief for union members who have to strike in order for their voices to be heard by management,” said Douglas Placa, Executive Director of JNESO District Council 1, at the time of the signing.
And the best news of all for JNESO AFL-CIO District 1 was the bill was supposedly retroactive, covering the period of their strike at St. Michael’s.
“This bill takes effect immediately and will apply to all UI [unemployment insurance] benefit claims filed on or after January 1, 2022,” according to administration’s press release.
Scroll forward to this month, and union nurses and techs at St. Michael’s Medical Center in Newark who were on strike are having to battle denials of those unemployment insurance benefits that were told by the Murphy administration would be covered retroactively. The union feels like their members are now being “punished for striking by the DOL” after they were used as extras for a Murphy photo-op.
“To add insult to injury, JNESO members who did get UI benefits are now suffering the additional strain of being sent monthly letters to pay back benefits they were awarded,” according to a press release from the union. “And, for some tax refunds and ANCHOR benefits are being held hostage because the Department of Labor has failed to rectify the issue.”
“The Teamsters who went on strike in May and the nurses at Robert Wood Johnson who are on strike now are collecting unemployment, but it has been over a year and our members still have no relief!” Douglas Placa, Executive Director of JNESO, said in a statement.
“I am totally stressed out by this,” said Kathy Sandkuhl, a staff nurse for 36 years. “I applied for unemployment, I received three weeks out of five and then started getting notices that I was not entitled and had to pay it back.” She added “Then I got notification they were withholding our ANCHOR rebate and state income tax refunds we were due. Enough is enough already.”
The union has engaged in the hearing process with the New Jersey Department of Labor over the past few months and expected that once Murphy signed the law, the issue would be resolved.
Jane Mertrud is a cardiac catheterization technologist. She told her union she was getting threatening letters about the unemployment money she was initially paid.
“I thought when they passed this bill that we should be getting this money,” Mertud said. “When I applied for the ANCHOR benefit – I didn’t get mine. I knew when I didn’t receive my ANCHOR money it was because of the strike unemployment I received. I am entitled to this money!”
Felix Rodriguez is an MRI technologist who tried to apply for unemployment initially but was flat out denied. Just a few days ago he got a call from unemployment saying they would send him an email to reapply, but he has yet to receive it.
“I was fortunate that I had some money in my savings account that I used to survive,” Rodriguez told the union. “I have been trying to call the Governor’s office about this to see if we can get some resolution, but all I get is the voicemail and no one ever calls me back.” He added, “It makes me feel awful. We have people counting on this money for over a year and have other unions who are striking like RWJUH and they mention they applied for UI already.”
Isabella Leiderman is an X-Ray technician who is still digging out from the financial strain of the strike on her family. “I am a single mother with two kids,” Liederman said. “I didn’t get any unemployment, and I had to use credit cards to pay my bill and pay for daycare, and I am still paying them off.”
JNESO is scheduled for another Department of Labor Unemployment Insurance Appeals Hearing on Sept. 18. According to the union, the New Jersey Department of Labor can’t find the transcription of one of the union’s previous hearings.
“This has been a complete nightmare that just won’t end for our members,” said Placa. “The head of the DOL needs to make this right immediately – or he should be held accountable.”
InsiderNJ supplied the Murphy press office with JNESO’s release with the anecdotes from their members which was then forwarded to the DOL.
“The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development is among the national leaders in the percentage of workers applying for unemployment benefits who go on to receive them,” responded DOL spokesperson Angela Delli Santi. “That’s because our default is to support workers whenever we can within the bounds of the law. We cannot comment on specific cases, some of which are in the appeals process. But suffice it to say, we are committed to getting every worker every dollar in benefits that they are eligible to receive. The claim that the Department would punish workers is patently untrue and counter to our mission to help every worker in their time of need.”
Wasn’t this supposed to be the consolation prize for Trenton stiffing essential workers for hazard pay while it spent billions on everything else?