Rank and File: NYSNA nurse Tim M on striking for safe staffing

What is your occupation? (You don’t need to specify the company if you prefer not to.)

I’m a registered nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital on an oncology/bone marrow transplant unit. Most of our patients have multiple myeloma, leukemia, or some other blood disorder. Our patients are immunocompromised and frequently become septic and end up in the intensive care unit. On an average day I tend three patients who need lots of oral medications, IV antibiotics, electrolyte supplements, and blood transfusions.

What union are you a member of?

New York State Nurses Association.

How long have you been a member? How would you characterize your involvement with the union?

I’ve been a NYSNA member for three years and a union delegate for the past two years.

What do you feel are the major issues your union is focused on right now?

My unit is frequently understaffed. For example, we’re not supposed to have any other patients while we’re giving someone a stem cell infusion, because we have to monitor these patients closely and respond quickly to adverse reactions before they escalate. The infusion takes one to six hours; we’re not supposed to leave the room during this time, but we almost always have at least one or two other patients to tend. We usually end up briefly unloading our other patients on another over-burdened nurse, or running out to care for them quickly and hoping nothing bad happens while we’re gone.

Sometimes we have so many patients that just ensuring that they get their medications and doing the required documentation leaves us only a few minutes to run to the cafeteria and back for food, with no time to eat it. On the medical/surgical units and in the emergency departments nurses care for two to  three times as many patients as research has found to be safe. Sometimes the patients don’t get the care they deserve. Incontinent patients lie in soiled beds because there aren’t enough nurses to clean them.

We rely on patients’ spouses and family members for help, which makes me feel awful. They skip work to help their loved ones get to the bathroom safely and wash up, when they’re under the emotional stress of the situation. Nurses talk all the time about how wrong this is for patients, families, and ourselves. We file for missed break pay. Sometimes, it’s so overwhelming that all I want to do is finish my shift and go home. But often, overstaffing starts to feel normal.

Nurses deal with the stress as long as we can or until we find work on a slightly better unit. Short staffing thus leads to high turnover in many units, which end up staffed with young new nurses that management thinks will accept the abuse. But the lack of experienced nurses just makes the chaos worse. I’ve worked on units like these and left after just a few months because I worried constantly that I’d make a mistake, hurt a patient, and lose my license.

We’ve proposed minimum Safe-Staffing Ratios in our current contract campaign. In medical/surgical units, for example, there would have to be at least one nurse for four patients. Peer-reviewed research has found that’s the minimum staffing ratio that’s safe for patients and nurses.

 NYSNA nurses on the picket line, original photo courtesy of  El Diario
NYSNA nurses on the picket line, original photo courtesy of El Diario

What is/has been the attitude of your employer toward the union?

Safe-Staffing Ratios place patients before profits and dramatically increase the power of unionized, bedside nurses in the workplace. Management is totally opposed to this. They want to keep control of staffing so they can maximize hospital profits.

We’ve made this a core issue in our current contract campaign. Management has refused to negotiate on anything substantive until we drop this demand, but we’re not backing down. We are now taking strike authorization votes at four contract hospitals that are negotiating together.

At best, management acknowledges our concerns over issues like staffing, workplace violence, or safe patient handling. At worst, management lies about union efforts to address these issues, restricts union representatives’ access to members, and walks all over the contract. We’re seeing all these tactics right now.   

Discuss the ways your union has advocated for the interests of its members.

To strengthen our position, NYSNA has arranged for four of NYC’s largest hospitals (Mount Sinai, Montefiore, New York-Presbyterian/Columbia, and St. Luke’s/Mount Sinai West) to bargain together. If management continues to refuse to negotiate over safe staffing, we could threaten to strike. I don’t see how they could find enough scabs to cover 16,000 nurses, so I’m optimistic that the threat will ultimately force management to address our concerns.

Are there issues you feel your union should organize around that are not currently being addressed?

NYSNA has passed many resolutions on important issues. It provides vital financial support for campaigns like Medicare for All and environmental justice. I’m glad we tackle these issues, which most of us support, but I wish the union engaged rank and file nurses more in these campaigns. Most of us don’t have a chance to do much except participate in annual lobby days and rallies. If large numbers of nurses could perform direct actions in the boardrooms of insurance and pharmaceutical companies, we would pose a threat to the healthcare industry. Also, more nurses would develop as leaders, which would make us more effective at challenging our bosses back in our hospitals.

About a week ago nurses at all four hospitals held informational pickets. Turnout was great; energy was high. We directed a lot of anger at Mount Sinai management, which cares more about money and awards than about patients and nurses. Weeks of individual conversations with coworkers and small unit meetings had boosted solidarity to a level I hadn’t felt before. I think that’s why we voted to authorize a strike.

Management has demanded that we take off our “Vote Yes” to strike stickers and sent misleading letters to the patients about contract negotiations. I hope our visible and aggressive tactics will convince nurses that they have to get involved in the union: that’s how we can win.

About Rebecca Capua 117 Articles
Red Letter spotlights editor, former MWG OC