NEW YORK NURSE: April 2008
by Mark Genovese
With bounced paychecks, canceled health insurance, and no severance pay, Cabrini Medical Center virtually abandoned its loyal, long-time RNs when it suddenly announced on March 12 that it would close within three days.
The nurses had struggled for weeks with a hospital administration that repeatedly failed to meet its obligations to its staff. NYSNA filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) charge against the medical center and called on the New York State Department of Health to intervene so employees wouldn’t have to pay for the forced closure of the Gramercy Park facility.
“Cabrini nurses feel they were forced out by the Berger Commission mandate,” said Lolita Compas, chair of the bargaining unit for a remarkable 22 of NYSNA’s 33 years at Cabrini, starting in 1986. “The impact has been devastating to their personal, economic, and professional lives.”
During these recent unsettling developments, Compas said, “NYSNA stood strong and more determined in its resolve to fight for our rights. This is collective bargaining in action.”
Cabrini was one of the five New York City hospitals slated for closure by the Berger Commission. The state law implementing the commission’s plan for closures and consolidations required that grants be available to help cover the costs of owed wages and benefits. Although Cabrini said in its application that the funding would go toward this purpose, it didn’t keep its word.
“Cabrini mismanaged this closing and the state failed to ensure that employees were treated fairly, as is required by the Berger Commission’s mandates,” said NYSNA nursing representative Mary Lou Cahill.
Starting in January, nurses were laid off without notice – which was required under their contract. Many received no severance or accrued pay. Paychecks for the 65 RNs who remained at Cabrini until the closing bounced three times over two months. Their health insurance was cut off because the hospital failed to pay premiums. They paid for continuing coverage out of their own pockets, and the hospital refused to reimburse them.
“This is the messy reality of a forced hospital closing,” said NYSNA Labor Representative Leon Bell. “Nurses are not numbers on a balance sheet or statistics in a report. They have a right to the benefits promised to them by their contract and by state law.”
The ULP charged the hospital with violating the National Labor Relations Act by refusing to negotiate with NYSNA and for making unilateral changes in working conditions. NYSNA sent letters of protest to the medical center’s CEO, board of trustees, and to the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart headquarters –the order that sponsors the medical center – in New York City and Rome.
Staff from NYSNA’s Governmental Affairs department and Economic & General Welfare (EGW) program have been pressing the New York State Department of Health (DOH) to take action and rallying support in the State Legislature. DOH representatives replied they were arranging for St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center to take over Cabrini’s hospice program and were working on restructuring the loans for Cabrini, something that would have to be approved by legislators.
The closing is an unfortunate end to a long and productive representation that began in the spring of 1975, when staff nurses worked rapidly to organize at what was then called the Columbus Division of Cabrini Health Care Center. NYSNA won the election that September with an astonishing 95.5% of the vote – one of the highest margins of victory in association history.
“Cabrini may have been a relatively small bargaining unit for the New York metro area, but it was always one of our strongest,” said Lorraine Seidel, NYSNA Economic & General Welfare Program director. Despite a hospital official saying in 1975: “The nurses will never get a contract,” Cabrini RNs stood firm and never backed down during contract talks. Again and again, the nurses fought for respect and won. It was one of the first NYSNA bargaining units to win a significant increase in certification differentials, reaching the $1,300 mark during the mid-1980s.
The hospital recruited aggressively in the Philippines for registered nurses in the 1980s. Many were still at Cabrini when the hospital closed.
“Cabrini has been, and will always be, a second home for all the nurses who entered its doors from the early 1960s to the present,” Compas said. “The majority of current Cabrini nurses have spent their entire adult lives at this institution. Their priceless contribution in delivering professional, compassionate, and competent nursing care kept the legacy of Mother Cabrini, the first American-immigrant saint, alive until the very end.”