United, Capital Region nurses rise

Scores of nurses and supporters from the Capital Region and beyond gathered outside both Ellis Hospital and Bellevue Woman’s Center in Schenectady on February 14 to call on management at the two facilities, as well as at Albany Medical Center, to put patient care first and settle fair contracts with safe staffing ratios. Braving the frigid temperatures and biting wind, members marched in the snow wielding signs and chanting “We are all united here!” while passing motorists honked in support.

“Our only message,” said Patricia Donohue, RN, LBU president at Ellis Hospital, “is every patient deserves a nurse at the bedside.”

“For over a year now, we have in good faith attempted negotiations to have a fair contract that protects our patients with staffing ratios and gives nurses a fair living wage so they can take care of their families,” said Jennifer Gunderman, RN, NICU nurse and LBU President at Bellevue Woman’s Center. “And for a year now, we have been stonewalled.”

The right conditions

NYSNA members from all three hospitals have formed Capital Region Nurses United. They were joined in solidarity by representatives from CWA, 1199SEIU, TWU 100 and NYSUT, and Assemblymen Phil Steck and Angelo Santabarbara, and Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy.

“We want to make sure you have living and working conditions that allow you to function with dignity,” said Mayor McCarthy.

“We want our nurses to have the support they need to make patients a priority and make sure that they’re getting the best healthcare possible,” said Assemblyman Santabarbara, a co-sponsor of the Safe Staffing for Quality Care Act. “For people like my parents, who’ve been in the hospital many times, without nurses on the front lines, they would not have gotten the care they needed. That’s why it’s so important that we pass the safe staffing bill. This is the year that it must be done.”

Albany Medical Center registered nurse Curtis Strife stressed that it is equally important to get management to understand that safe staffing is in the best interest of the hospital.

“Without safe staffing, nurses leave,” said Strife. “And when you lose a nurse, you’re going to have to spend more money training a new one.”

Retention is an issue

Keller has seen similar problems with nurse retention at Ellis. “Nurses here don’t stay—it’s like a revolving door,” she said. “The turnover rate now is about 27 percent, and we believe it may be even higher.”

Nurses at Ellis Hospital have been in negotiations since their contract expired last February. Management has agreed to a few of the nurses’ proposals; however, when it comes to wages, benefits and safe staffing, Gunderman and Keller say the hospital is dragging its feet.

This isn’t the first time nurses in the Capital Region have come together to advocate for their patients and their right to a fair contract. For several years, management at Albany Medical Center, Ellis Hospital and other area facilities colluded to keep registered nurses’ pay low. Nurses fought back, and the hospitals were fined millions of dollars; however, wages were never returned to appropriate levels. To this day, Capital Region nurses are among the lowest paid in the country.

At Ellis, the administration has offered a mere one percent raise for the next four years. “We can’t live on that,” said Keller.

The combination of depressed wages, dangerous understaffing and nurses regularly being asked to take on non-nursing functions has led many to leave the region. But NYSNA members are committed to staying united and fighting for their patients and to preserve the quality of care at the hospitals they love.

“With [Ellis and Bellevue nurses] getting good contracts, we’ll get a good contract, and everyone can go back to doing what we need to do, which is bedside nursing and providing the highest quality care possible for our communities,” said Strife.

“Ellis is my heart because I went to Ellis School of Nursing. I won’t give up on it,” said Keller.

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