NYSNA members are redoubling efforts to improve patient care at Westchester Medical Center (WMC). Through direct community outreach, the hospital’s 1,400 nurses aim to achieve better staffing at the 652-bed behemoth and its 243-bed Mid-Hudson Regional Hospital campus. WMC serves a 5,000-square-mile, five-county area that is home to more than 3.6 million people. Its importance in the region in terms of healthcare delivery cannot be overstated.
In 1998, WMC transitioned from a traditional county hospital into a public benefit corporation. Since then, WMC’s management has adopted some of the worst aspects of for-profit healthcare. It blocked public access to meetings and has waged a cost cutting campaign with all the telltale signs of a system that puts profits over patients.
Two years ago, WMC terminated thousands of support staff positions — housekeeping, dietary and nurses aides — and in their place contracted for services with private companies. Those who wanted to continue working at the hospital had to reapply for their jobs, often at considerably lower wages and with inferior benefits.
“I am convinced that if WMC could have found a way to terminate the center’s nurses, it would have,” said Jayne Cammisa, RN, a 28-year WMC veteran and new NYSNA board member. When WMC took over the former St. Francis Hospital in 2014 in Poughkeepsie and renamed it Mid-Hudson Regional Hospital, it did in fact terminate the entire RN workforce and has since staffed that hospital exclusively with agency nurses. WMC is now in the process of taking over Hudson Valley Health Alliance, the former Kingston and Benedictine Hospitals, where NYSNA nurses recently ratified a three-year contract renewal.
Providing safe, quality care under such circumstances has become increasingly difficult. Last year, WMC RNs filed 3,000 POAs, a majority linked to staffing. Short-staffing is aggravated by the fact that neither staff RNs, nurse management nor physicians are permitted to directly supervise support staff employed by the private contractors; all supervisory actions must be channeled through the contractors’ offsite supervisors. “Nurses have no recourse when support staff doesn’t follow an order,” said Ms. Cammisa. Given these issues, she and fellows nurses are not the least bit surprised that WMC is experiencing problems recruiting and retaining nurses.
I am NYSNA
Meanwhile, NYSNA nurses continue to try to negotiate a contract renewal, focusing on staffing. WMC has stalled bargaining over healthcare benefits, with proposals that would seriously diminish RN coverage, transferring liability to the nurses and dramatically increasing out-of-pocket costs. WMC’s attempts to bypass the NYSNA Negotiating Committee and present details on health benefits directly to nurses were not only an abject failure — not a single nurse showed up for the presentation — but constituted a labor law violation. After filing a ULP for direct dealing, the RNs launched an “I am NYSNA” sticker campaign to remind management that the union is not an outside party. In addition to the stickers, 1,100 of the 1,400 nurses in the unit signed a “hands off our benefits” petition, which was blown up and displayed outside a recent WMC board of directors meeting.
We will not be silenced
The nurses sent a bigger message to the community by presenting their safe staffing message on a 40-foot billboard near the hospital, and they are talking with elected officials, as well. More than a year ago, after witnessing the effectiveness of the Yonkers firefighters’ union, in which her husband is a member, Ms. Camissa was inspired to revamp NYSNA’s WMC political action committee. She and several colleagues were soon reaching out to their local representatives and found that “real life stories bring the message of what is happening at WMC home and make it tangible. When we met with politicians, we opened their eyes.”
With the interest in political action ignited, NYSNA assigned staff to help arrange additional meetings with elected officials. At first, Westchester County legislators said they could provide little assistance, as they had no oversight of the medical center aside from carrying out duties as the facility’s landlord. The nurses disagreed, reminding them of their role in appointing WMC’s board.
In a short period, the political action committee has grown to 75 RNs who are making inroads and contacts within their respective political and labor communities. A broader group of WMC nurses is taking every opportunity to share stories with community members, politicians and patients. They are committed to staying out front of WMC board members and management, and doing whatever it takes to protect quality care and the nursing profession at WMC.
WMC RNs rallied for safe staffing and safe working conditions on June 6 outside the New York Botanical Garden where WMC execs and patrons attended a gala event.
NYSNA’s billboard went up July 20 near the busy intersection of the Cross Westchester section of the NYS Thruway (I-287) and Route 119, a main exit to White Plains. Drivers and passengers in an estimated 75,000 cars per day will see the sign.
When WMC management (illegally) issued a direct invitation to nurses for a presentation on new health benefits not a single nurse showed up.