Thousands of City Nurses Protest Staffing Levels

One of the strongest arguments against the claim that unions only act in their own, public-be-damned self-interest was made last week by thousands of nurses at hospitals across the city.

At a time when politicians like Mayor Giuliani are trying to convince citizens that standing tough against union demands is the same thing as safeguarding the public interest, members of the New York State Nurses Association turned out en masse to offer a simple common-sense argument: Too few nurses means poor patient care.

The rolling demos began at 7 a.m. Thursday at Bellevue, the city-owned hospital that is the heart of the city's emergency hospital system, and continued at nearby Cabrini Medical Center on East 19th Street. A caravan of speakers then moved to St. Vincent's in the West Village for a lunchtime rally and ended at Mount Sinai on the Upper East Side in the late afternoon, where nurses signed petitions demanding safe staffing levels.

Nurses union representatives Ilene Sussman and James Ferris during last week’s protests
photo: Cary Conover
Nurses union representatives Ilene Sussman and James Ferris during last week’s protests

In response to a growing shortage of nurses across the country, hospital managers are coping by making nurses work longer hours and with fewer on duty per shift, union officials say. The result has been a downward slide in patient care, with recent research showing a correlation between nursing staff levels and patient outcomes, union officials say. Hospitals with more registered nurses have fewer incidents of ulcers, in-hospital pneumonia, and postoperative problems, according to the union. If you doubt it, says a glossy union brochure prepared by the union's national parent, the United American Nurses, just ask a nurse.

"It's scary," said Susan Eljdid, an emergency room nurse for 12 years at St. Vincent's, who gathered signatures on the sidewalk outside the hospital's West 12th Street entrance. "You try to do your best, but the little things you want to do for a patient just go undone."

"Sometimes it's a case of not being able to monitor your patients," said John Hiltunen, a 10-year veteran at St. Vincent's who works in the oncology unit.

Staffing levels have been at the top of the grievance list for several years for nurses in the metropolitan area. Nurses at Nyack Hospital in Rockland County struck for five months last year, with staffing one of the key issues. During contract talks at St. Vincent's last year, nurses there came close to walking out. They were able to reach a compromise under which staffing levels were addressed by a union-management committee that came up with a system under which optimum staff levels were set.

Now, when staff levels fall below those levels, nurses sign a complaint form describing the shortfall and problems that ensued as a result. The committee evaluates the complaints. Nurses at St. Vincent's are also able to turn down overtime, unlike those at many other local hospitals, who say they are working longer shifts without breaks. But St. Vincent's nurses, who average $55,000 a year, according to the union, still report being overwhelmed and shorthanded.

"The level in pediatric units sometimes reaches one nurse for 13 patients; it's supposed to be a ratio of one nurse to three patients," said another St. Vincent's nurse.

Union officials say the current shortage of nurses has become a self-perpetuating problem. "Nursing used to be a popular and sought-after profession. But many people look at the current situation and ask why they would want to go through school just to wind up overworked and unable to deliver quality care," said James Ferris, a nurse for 16 years who helped organize Thursday's rallies.

Immigrants Claim Harassment

Unions are supposed to be the first line of defense for workers suffering harassment in the workplace, but two sisters from El Salvador working at a Long Island automotive brake assembly plant say their union became part of the problem.

Sandra Gomez worked at Bonded Brakes in Holtsville for nine years before her sister, Maria Claribel Perez, came north and joined her on the assembly line. Shortly after Perez arrived, two male supervisors allegedly began harassing them. The harassment consisted of demands that they go out on dates and vulgar language about their anatomy, according to the women.

The sisters said they first complained to management. When that failed, they took their complaints to representatives of the Crafts and Industrial Workers Union, Local 91. Members pay a $75 initiation fee to the unaffiliated union when they join and about $25 a month in dues. But for months the union ignored them too, the women claimed.

The Crafts and Industrial Workers Union has about 1750 members, according to its federal disclosure reports. Most of its members are in small manufacturing plants or warehouses in Manhattan, New Jersey, and Long Island.

Last August, shortly after they went public about the harassment, the sisters said they were physically attacked by two women in the plant. Gomez and Perez believe the attack was instigated by their harassers as retribution for their complaints. During the fight, Perez was bitten so severely on her arm that she was later unable to raise it over her head. The sisters were later fired. Their attackers were not.

Gomez and Perez sought out an immigrant advocacy group called the Workplace Project in Hempstead, where an attorney named Saru Jayaraman made calls on their behalf to the union. She had a tough time even finding where the union was located, Jayaraman said. "First we went to the address on the union's official papers, but it was this empty apartment over a laundromat. A woman there gave us another address, which was a big house, where we rang and rang the doorbell until someone finally came out," said the attorney.

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