Hundreds of nurses and community members turned out for early-morning picketing outside the Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, N.J. on June 22. During the picket, passersby blared their car horns in support of the nurses who were protesting the lack of progress in bargaining a new contract with Hackensack Meridian Health (HMH). Health Professionals and Allied Employees represents 1,300 nurses at Jersey Shore; their contract with the hospital expired on May 31.
The nurses who have bravely cared for thousands of patients on the COVID-19 pandemic frontlines are negotiating for a voice in pandemic preparedness in their facility. They also are calling for restrictions on “floating” nurses to units outside of their designated skill level; limits on non-nursing duties that may lead to cross contamination and put patients at higher risk of exposure; and fair wages.
“You have been through some trauma in the last few months,” HPAE President Debbie White said to raucous applause from the more than 400 nurses participating in the informational picket. “It’s not bad enough that we have to go through COVID-19, but now we have to go through this? We are going to show the employer that we mean business,” said White. “I’m here to tell you, ignoring nurses is bad medicine. These negotiations are all about safety, health and respect. Nurses need to be heard. Nurses need to be respected. Nurses need a seat at the table in planning how to deal with future pandemics.”
White says that several major lessons were learned during the coronavirus outbreak and the haphazard response. Moving forward, White says it is imperative to develop a plan with standards for our hospital systems, including the HMH system, to be better prepared for the inevitable surge looming on the horizon.
“You know what is going on here,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten who joined members at the picket. “You are doing more with less every day, and that was before COVID-19. You kept southern New Jersey as healthy as possible. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have tamed this beast, but that is in large part because of what you did,” said Weingarten. “That’s why they don’t have a sign that says ‘Thank the CEOs.’ They have a sign that says ‘Thank the Heroes,’ ” she said pointing to a nearby billboard, and telling the picket participants that they are the heroes.
HMH hospitals, including Jersey Shore University Medical Center, have been the subject of several complaints to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for putting healthcare workers’ safety at risk during the pandemic. Jersey Shore nurses complained to OSHA that their employer is consistently following unsafe practices and failing to provide sufficient personal protective equipment like respirators, gloves and gowns. In a strongly worded letter, OSHA told the hospital that, while it is continuing its investigation of the complaints, HMH must stop retaliating against Jersey Shore nurses who point out safety concerns.
“That is why we want to negotiate formal ‘standard pandemic planning’ into this contract renewal so that nurses will have a voice in how PPE is acquired and distributed,” said White. “In the event of another disease outbreak, we want weekly meetings with management to review available stock of personal protective equipment, staffing, fit-testing of PPE, including plans for when someone fails a fit test. We are fighting for this because we want our healthcare workers to have the ability to collaborate with management over supplies in any future pandemic, including a potential resurgence of the one we are currently facing.”
“The public calls nurses ‘heroes,’ but the proposals from HMH don’t reflect that,” says Adam Witt, a nurse and the president of HPAE Local 5058 at Jersey Shore. “We deserve respect for our hard work, sacrifice and commitment. We’ve been pushed to our limits and are at the point where we have to show HMH that safety, staffing, correct paychecks and a fair wage are necessities for our incredible nurses.” Witt was terminated by HMH but has continued as his local’s president, attending negotiations via video conference.
HPAE filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board against HMH for unlawful discipline and termination of unionized healthcare workers and for retaliating against the union’s workers who are not only providing care, but demanding the protective equipment they need to stay safe on the frontlines.
Weingarten pointed out that firing Witt didn’t have the expected results. “They thought by firing Adam, you would take whatever they would give; but by showing up today, you show them that we are not scared,” said Weingarten. “Because of what Hackensack Meridian has become, you have to stand out here. Then, they see that together we can accomplish what is impossible to do alone.”