MNR nurses go the distance with unity and solidarity

On December 1 and 2, close to 200 nurses at Montefiore New Rochelle hospital joined together and went on strike. They were determined to make their voices heard on the critical issue of safe staffing. For two years of contract negotiations, including this year when the pandemic and its latest resurgence reappeared in force, the hospital ignored NYSNA nurses and the alarm they sounded about serious understaffing at the hospital. Virtually the entire RN workforce voted to strike.

“It’s clear that Montefiore does not want us to have a voice in patient safety,” said Kathy Santoiemma, an RN at New Rochelle. “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.”

Nurses were pushed to the brink. The hospital attempted to keep RNs from communicating with fellow RNs and to restrict their use of social media — both formed the basis of Unfair Labor Practice charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board. These federal charges are under investigation.

MNR unprepared for another surge

Understaffing came to the fore again with news of a rapid uptick in COVID-19 cases. New Rochelle was the New York community first hit — and hit hard — by the COVID pandemic in the spring. With several red clusters emerging in Westchester County, it became clear to nurses that the hospital was not prepared for another surge of COVID.

“In the emergency department where I work, we are not fit-tested for our N95s and the straps are constantly breaking,” explained Peggy Sinkkonen, RN. “Frontline workers and the community are also risking greater exposure because we don’t have the space or staff to move patients efficiently out of the ED and into isolation rooms, where someone with an airborne virus should be.”

In late November, NYSNA filed two Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) complaints against Montefiore New Rochelle. The complaints detail reporting failures by the hospital as well as lack of fit testing for respirators and insufficient numbers of face protection for staff assigned COVID patients. Another serious charge against the hospital: it failed to follow global standards of infection control by mixing COVID patients with the general population and exposing nurses and patients to unnecessary risk of virus transmission.

“What has Montefiore done since June? They put a bunch of billboards up on the highway and bought TV commercials calling us ‘heroes,’” said Maria Castillo, an RN in the hospital’s Emergency Room. “They want the community to think they appreciate us. The reality is that they would rather spend millions of dollars on their public image, instead of making sure we have enough nurses to care for everyone who is sick!”

Outpouring of community support

Elected officials, union leaders and community members rallied to live music and chanting. The strike — and safe staffing crisis — got extensive local, national and even international news coverage.

The strike ended at 7 a.m. on December 3. But it wasn’t over. Montefiore notified nurses by email and phone of changes to their schedules — effectively leaving them locked out. There were reports of severe understaffing and two units, the dedicated COVID unit and a post-surgical unit, where approximately 35 nurses work, remained closed.

Montefiore stands down

On December 8, nurses held a press conference to underscore the loss of services to the community, demanding Montefiore bring back the striking nurses. “Montefiore may be trying to punish nurses who went on strike, but it’s the patients who suffer when there are not enough nurses, and when the services at their community hospital are shut down,” said Shalon Mathews, an RN who worked the ER.

The next day Montefiore reopened its COVID unit. The post-surgical unit was reopened two days later. All 35 nurses were back at work.

The nurses’ unity, clarity of messaging and community outreach had prevailed. They returned to bargaining with a renewed sense of empowerment.

“Our community deserves a fully functional hospital,” said Lisa Gehrung, RN. “We know that when we are united, we can get the job done!”

Since returning to work, New Rochelle nurses have filed dozens of POAs documenting unsafe staffing and floating outside their competencies. New Rochelle nurses are getting ready for the next phase of the fight for a fair contract!

OSHA Complaint

November 28, 2020 (excerpted)

The employer is failing to apply and enforce basic, globally accepted and CDC proposed, measures to keep patients, staff and visitors safe that can reduce the risk of virus transmission. This is particularly the case in the emergency department, where patients are crowded on top of each other in the waiting areas and in the hallways, with complete failures to apply social distancing standards or to properly separate COVID positive and COVID PUI cases from each other and from other patients, staff and visitors...

Nurses and our labor, community, and elected official allies braved the cold for two days on the picket line.

On October 6, Montefiore New Rochelle nurses hosted a speak out to demand that Montefiore reopen the Maternal Child Health unit and settle a fair contract.

Nurses picket Montefiore’s billboard bus, demanding resources go to patient care, not advertising!

Nurses won’t stop until they win a fair contract that improves staffing.

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