Taking a stand for safe staffing

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LIKE MANY NEW NURSES, Michalan Riehl started her career working the night shift. “Nights are difficult,” says Riehl, who works in the telemetry unit at Danbury (Conn.) Hospital, so when an earlier shift position finally opened up, she grabbed it. But in the fall, Riehl will be forced to work nights again.

Mary Consoli (left) and Michalan Riehl. Photo by Thomas Giroir.Mary Consoli (left) and Michalan Riehl. Photo by Thomas Giroir.

In August, Riehl and fellow members of the Danbury Nurses Union voted overwhelmingly to reject concessions hospital administrators put forth that would have eliminated evening and weekend shift differentials as well as overtime pay. The vote meant that the nurses would face layoffs. To avoid being laid off, Riehl took another shift.

Western Connecticut Health Network, the system that employs the nurses at Danbury and New Milford Hospital, came up with the concession plan after the state reduced its funding for uncompensated care by $30 million.

“This is a patient safety issue. We are already working understaffed,” says Mary Consoli, president of the Danbury Nurses Union. “The premiums for nights and weekends were focused on the hardest shifts to staff. These were incentives we negotiated to get people to take those shifts. The biggest concern is how the hospital is going to staff these shifts.”

“If we are spread too thin, that’s a huge detriment to the patient,” says Riehl.

In a separate vote, nurses at New Milford Hospital, which is represented by AFT Healthcare Local 5101, also rejected the concessions.

It’s easier to reduce staff at smaller hospitals like New Milford when the patient census is low, but when the patient census is high, staffing is harder, says Joanne Chapin, president of the New Milford local. “Many of the hospital units face this problem.”

Strong by nature

“The hospital blamed the union for the layoffs, because we wouldn’t agree to the concessions,” says Danbury’s Consoli. “But there was no way the union would agree to any concession if the hospital could not guarantee there would not be more layoffs.”

Chapin agrees. “We never seriously considered concessions, because we couldn’t get a time frame on layoffs or staffing.”

Members at Danbury agreed to concessions in the last negotiations, says Consoli. The Danbury president believes other decisions could have been made. “We offered an early retirement option, but the hospital didn’t go for that because of the fear that they would lose too many senior staff.”

In the end, seven nurses were laid off at Danbury and two at New Milford. In the meantime, both unions are encouraging their nurse members to fill out forms that will notify administration of an unsafe staffing situation and force management to find a solution. Union members also are working with state lawmakers to tighten up the language regarding safe staffing in the next session of the Legislature.

The goal is to reinforce safe staffing efforts, says Chapin. “Documenting incidents of unsafe staffing will provide us with the proof we need to show that we need stronger language in the safe staffing law. If we can do that, it will help hospitals throughout the state.”

As for Riehl, the fight has prompted her to get more involved in the work of her union. “What’s done is done, but there are more obstacles ahead,” say Riehl. The Danbury Nurses Union contract ends next March, and Riehl wants to be part of the negotiations. “My hope is that others will to get involved in the union, too, so we can become stronger. That’s the only way the hospital will listen. As nurses, we are strong by nature, but our voice is much stronger together.”

August 22, 2013