Week Four: Booker Speaks Out for Striking Nurses
As the nurses’ strike at New Brunswick’s Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital entered its fourth week United Steelworkers Local 4-200 showed no signs of losing their resolve to holdout for safer staffing levels. Energy remains high on the picket line.
Judy Danella is an RN, and president of USW Local 4-200. Danella told InsiderNJ her members were buoyed by the backing from other healthcare unions and the broader community, including a growing list of supportive elected officials who site the nurses’ heroics during COVID as well as the weaknesses in the healthcare system that became so apparent during the pandemic.
“As of right now, there are no new negotiations scheduled,” Danella said. “We’ve had a candlelight vigil. The hospital just contracted now for more replacement nurses for the next eight weeks and they are bringing in 300 more. If we had this level of staffing before the strike, we wouldn’t have gone out on strike.”
“As of today, we have not been notified of an upcoming mediation session with the union,” said Wendy Gottsegen, a spokesperson for the hospital, in a statement. “Both parties last met August 16 for approximately seven hours with the assistance of two federal mediators. Unfortunately, there was no progress and no further dates for negotiations have been scheduled by the mediators.”
On Saturday, in Asbury Park, Senator Cory Booker told InsiderNJ “this is not just a strike that’s going to have implications for the one hospital system. This is going to have implications for our whole state and potentially our whole nation.”
“I have reached out to the hospital to talk and let it be known my views on this which is that I support our nurses,” Booker said. “We have got to get them a contract that makes sense amidst a nursing crisis not just in our state but around the country. We hailed them as heroes during the pandemic but when it comes to their compensation, the nursing ratios we’ve got to make sure they are being treated like heroes not just in words but in the kind of contract and living circumstances they have.”
Booker continued. “I have been concerned for a long time. Again, the pandemic revealed a lot of challenges from our nursing homes to our hospitals– a lot of the crises we have with supporting the kind of workforce [we need]. It’s just not about them. It’s also about patient [care] quality. It’s patient safety and more…. That’s why it was important for me to come forward quickly and support the nurses.”
At one point during the pandemic, New Jersey had the highest per capita COVID death rate in the world. As of this past spring, the state recorded over 36,000 with 1 in 246 state residents dying of COVID.
Not being prepared for the pandemic had some real consequences, particularly for healthcare professionals who bore the brunt of inadequate infection control in congregate care setting and in hospitals. The Guardian newspapers and Kaiser Health News reported that 3,600 hospital workers died in the first year of the pandemic due to their occupational exposure. 700 of them were from New York and New Jersey. Two-thirds of them were people of color.
“I think when COVID hit everybody was very much surprised and at that point many nurses left the profession—they were afraid of the COVID disease,” Danella said on WBAI earlier this month. “It was an unknown disease and many of them said ‘I don’t want to expose myself or my family to this disease.’”
Last year, the Brookings Institute reported that perhaps as many as four million workers have been sidelined by long COVID. In 2020, the State of New Jersey extended to nurses and other essential workers a Workers Compensation presumption that if they contracted COVID it would be considered a consequence of their workplace exposure.
“The impact of long COVID – and its sometimes-disabling symptoms that can persist for more than a year — has worsened health care’s already severe workforce shortage,” reported WebMD, earlier this year. “Hospitals have turned to training programs, traveling nurses, and emergency room staffing services. While the shortage of clinical workers continues, support workers are also in short supply, with no end in sight.”
RWJUH in New Brunswick is one of a dozen acute care hospitals in the RWJBarnabus system that has a partnership with Rutgers University which makes it the state’s largest academic healthcare system. It has 38,000 employees and $6.6 billion in revenue. RWJUH is one of the state’s three Level 1 Trauma centers which means it handles the most seriously ill patients from several counties.
The system’s recently retired CEO and President Barry Ostrowsky earned $16 million in the second year of the pandemic, making him the highest paid hospital executive in the New York area, according to Crain’s New York.
Last week, Booker and Sen. Robert Menendez wrote Mark Manigan, RWJ Barnabas Health’s president and CEO encouraging him “to move quickly to come to a good faith agreement that provides the nurses with safe standards, quality working conditions, affordable health care, and living wages that support the employees, the hospital community, and your patients.”
The Senators’ letter continued. “From our conversations with nurses, we have come to understand that one of the key issues in this contract dispute is over safe staffing that is jeopardizing quality care. We support a path forward that ensures a collaborative relationship with nurses and honors the dignity of their work, recognizes their right to a safe workplace, and rewards their dedication to the individuals they serve.”
Menendez and Booker urged “a quick resolution” to “ensure that Robert Wood Johnson retains a highly skilled and well supported workforce, but also that the 1,700 devoted nurses can return to their critical work with minimal disruptions to their wellbeing, the wellbeing of their families, and the wellbeing of their communities.”
Back in the spring, HPAE, the state’s largest nurses’ union, with the strong support of the NJ AFL-CIO, launched a statewide campaign to get Trenton to enact nurse-to-patient staffing ratios as was done in California in 2004. In the years since, peer reviewed studies documented that California saw greatly improved patient outcomes, workplace safety, as well as nurse retention.
In a landmark study, six years after California enacted the measure, Dr. Linda Aiken with the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing found the mandatory staffing ratios had significantly improved patient outcomes and to promote nurse retention. The analysis used data from California and Pennsylvania as well as New Jersey where there were no such nursing standards.
“California hospital nurses cared for one less patient on average than nurses in the other states and two fewer patients in medical and surgical units,” according to the study. “Lower ratios are associated with significantly lower mortality. When nurses’ workloads were in line with California-mandated ratios in all three states, nurses’ burnout and job dissatisfaction were lower, and nurses reported consistently better quality of care.”
The strike comes at time as a national healthcare staffing crisis that’s particularly pronounced in the Northeast. A national survey predicted New Jersey would be shy of 11,400 nurses by 2030, ranking it in the top ten states with a severe shortfall. Also, in that crisis mix Connecticut (27,926), New York (18,784), and Pennsylvania (16,430).
Statement from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital on Strike by United Steel Workers 4-200
Wendy Gottsegen, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital spokesperson:
“Both parties last met August 16 for approximately seven hours with the assistance of two federal mediators. Unfortunately, there was no progress and no further dates for negotiations have been scheduled by the mediators.
“Here is a recap of important facts:
“RWJUH did everything it could to avoid a strike. The hospital agreed to and signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) on July 13, which included the union’s core staffing proposal and compensation settlement. The union leaders signed it and agreed to recommend the MOA to its membership, but did not. It was voted down by the nurses and a notice to strike was presented to the hospital.
“Then on August 2, two days before the strike, the hospital submitted a proposal to the union that went even further than what was in the MOA, and the union never presented that proposal to its membership before they went out on strike.
“RWJUH offered to enter binding arbitration or participate in a federal mediation and conciliation board of inquiry; the union refused both. When the hospital requested the union rescind its strike notice and return to the table to continue good faith negotiations, the union said no.
“During the 10-day window prior to the strike, the hospital made another counteroffer to attempt to avert the strike. The union did not respond to the offer until after the strike.
“Since the strike, mediation has not been productive; counteroffers from the union have far exceeded all previous asks, including those the union agreed to in the MOA.
“The parties await notification from the mediators regarding the next session.
“We understand and recognize the toll the pandemic took on our nurses and have worked aggressively to address staffing. Despite a nationwide nursing shortage, in which New Jersey is facing 14,000 nurse vacancies, RWJUH has added 200 staff nurse positions since 2022 and has reduced its nurse vacancy rate to nearly half the national average. RWJUH nurses are already the highest paid in the state, and all offers by the hospital would have significantly elevated their status.
“We have said all along that no one benefits from a strike—least of all our nurses. We hope the union considers the impact a prolonged strike is having on our nurses and their families. As of September 1, RWJUH nurses must pay for their health benefits through COBRA. This hardship, in addition to the loss of wages throughout the strike, is very unfortunate and has been openly communicated to the union and the striking nurses since prior to the walk-out on August 4.
“As always, our top priority is to our patients. RWJUH is open, fully operational and completely staffed, and we remain steadfast in our commitment to deliver the highest quality and always-safe patient care.”
About Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital
Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) New Brunswick, an RWJBarnabas Health Facility, is a 640-bed academic medical center that is New Jersey’s largest academic medical center through its deep partnership with Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. RWJUH is the flagship Cancer Hospital of Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, and other Centers of Excellence include cardiovascular care from minimally invasive heart surgery to transplantation, cancer care, stroke care, neuroscience, orthopedics, bariatric surgery and women’s and children’s care including the nationally ranked Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (www.bmsch.org). A Level 1 Trauma Center and the first designated Pediatric Trauma Center in the state, RWJUH’s New Brunswick campus serves as a national resource in its ground-breaking approaches to emergency preparedness. Learn more at www.rwjbh.org/newbrunswick
RWJUH has earned significant national recognition for clinical quality and patient safety, including the prestigious Magnet® Recognition for Nursing Excellence and being named to Newsweek’s 2023 list of Ambulatory Surgery Centers. The Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital nationally ranked by US News & World report in Orthopedics and Urology for 2023-24. The RWJUH Advanced Comprehensive Stroke Center has been recognized by The Joint Commission and the American Heart Association as meeting The Joint Commission’s standards for Disease-Specific Care Comprehensive Stroke Center Advanced Certification. RWJUH has also earned The Joint Commission’s Gold Seal of Approval® for Disease-Specific Care Certification for Spine Surgery; The Joint Commission Gold Seal Certification for Bariatric Services; and The Joint Commission Gold Seal Certification for Hip and Knee Replacement services. The Joint Commission also awarded RWJUH a Gold Seal Certification as well as an Advanced Certification in Ventricular Assist Device (VAD) Implantation.
(This story originally appeared in InsiderNJ.)