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Health-Care Workers Turning to Strikes as Covid-19 Surges Again

Nov. 24, 2020, 4:02 PM

Health-care workers in at least three states are moving to strike, demanding more staff and better pay, as the number of Covid-19 cases surges across the U.S., overwhelming hospitals and nursing homes.

More than 100 doctors, physician assistants, and nurses walked off the job this week in Washington state, accusing their employer of refusing to provide protective equipment or reduce 12-hour shift times. In Chicago, 700 nursing-home workers are striking to demand hazard pay and better working conditions. And next month, more than 2,000 nurses in New York say they won’t show up if management doesn’t agree to hire more nurses, purchase equipment, and cover a greater share of employees’ health benefits.

The demonstrations signal that union workers are more willing to walk off the job as the U.S. enters the latest and most severe wave of the coronavirus pandemic, raising the specter of greater disruptions in health care and other essential sectors. At least 16 unionized health-care workplaces across the country have gone on strike since the pandemic began, according to a Bloomberg Law database of work stoppages.

‘Nightmares About It’

Nurses at Albany Medical Center and Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital in New York plan to walk off the job Dec. 1 for one and two days, respectively, to pressure management to fill their thinned-out ranks and raise wages.

Montefiore New Rochelle management never rehired staff after younger nurses left in droves early in the pandemic, said Kathy Santoiemma, a registered nurse who chairs the New York State Nurses Association chapter at the hospital, causing the patient-to-nurse ratio to grow more lopsided. In May, a 74-year-old nurse died of Covid-19 as the hospital struggled to manage a torrent of infected patients.

There’s a sense among staff that the next wave will be far worse than the last.

“We all have nightmares about it. During the surge, we were everything to these patients,” Santoiemma said. “We were their families, because there was no family allowed in there. We held their hands when they passed away. We were their priests—we prayed with them.

“The phone I’m on right now, I gave it to so many patients before they were intubated, and I had them call their families. And they said goodbye to their families, a lot of them for the last time.”

In a written statement, Montefiore spokeswoman Lara Markenson said the union’s threats of a strike were “disgraceful,” and that the hospital had already offered raises of more than 7% to union nurses. The company said it spent more than $200 million on Covid-related equipment, and that it uses “flexible staffing plans” in its hospitals.

In a letter to the Montefiore New Rochelle union chapter last month, Anthony Alfano, the hospital’s vice president and executive director, said the pandemic has exacerbated financial problems. Operating losses in the past 20 months exceeded $50 million, he said, and the hospital relies on subsidies to meet its operating expenses.

At Albany Medical Center, negotiations between hospital management and the NYSNA over protective equipment, staffing, and employee health care are at a stalemate. Nurses say they are forced to reuse N-95 masks after the equipment is put through a dubious sanitizing process. More than 200 nurses have quit since the pandemic began, according to the union.

“I can’t even describe what it’s like to be up there,” said NYSNA President Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez. “It feels like you’re in some Third World country and they say, ‘Be glad you have a job.’”

Albany Medical Center spokesman Matt Markham said in a statement that there were no “open items” related to protective equipment in contract talks because the hospital has “an adequate supply of PPE.”

Other Walkouts

In Washington state, workers at 20 urgent-care clinics walked off the job Monday and Tuesday over similar complaints. Physicians at the clinics, owned by the company MultiCare, allege that unionized clinics have been denied N-95 masks and plexiglass barriers at reception areas, even though the company has provided the materials to other non-unionized clinics.

In addition, the workers say they are forced to work 12-hour shifts with no breaks. The clinic workers, part of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, also are at odds over raises and bonuses for a new contract.

“Our concern is partially for the providers’ wellbeing as well as the patient safety,” said Brian Fox, a doctor and member of the union bargaining team. He added that studies have shown that “providers begin to make mistakes after so many hours and so many patients.”

Mark Mariani, chief medical officer and vice president of retail health for MultiCare, said that not all locations had been given N-95 masks but that the company provided other kinds of protective equipment. MultiCare hired 50 additional staff to help handle the influx in patients, he said, and is committed to remaining open 12 hours a day, every day, to assist patients.

Nearly 700 nursing-home workers in the Chicago area also went on strike over hazard pay and working conditions at 11 facilities owned by Infinity Healthcare Management.

Like the New York hospitals, the nursing home workers, represented by the Service Employees International Union, said they’ve been forced to reuse masks and other protective equipment. The union said pandemic bonuses ended in July, and that the company has been resistant to raises for the lowest-paid workers despite getting $12.7 million in federal aid.

Infinity Healthcare didn’t respond to calls or messages left at its corporate headquarters and at two of its Illinois locations. An email sent to the main office was returned as undeliverable, suggesting the address had been shut down.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ian Kullgren in Washington at ikullgren@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com

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