New Rochelle, NY — Beginning at 7 am on December 1, the entire nursing staff of Montefiore New Rochelle (MNR) Hospital staged a two-day picket against the hospital’s administration in protest of unsafe working conditions and a stalled contract negotiation. According to nurses affiliated with NYSNA holding the line, understaffing and low salaries were issues at MNR long before the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, the contract negotiations that led to the current strike have been ongoing for two years. The effects of Covid-19, which hit the hospital’s community in early in March, have only made these problems worse. New Rochelle had 10 of the first 11 cases in New York. Now, there have now been more than 51,000 cases reported in Westchester county. One MNR nurse, Suppee Pojjanannuvat, has died of it.
Among the nurses Left Voice spoke with, there is a clear consensus: MNR is not prepared for the second wave. Nurses are already seeing the number of patients per nurse skyrocket again. According to Nurse Castillo, there has not been a drop in hospital visits like there was in the spring, when hospitals saw a 40-50% decrease in patient volume. Of course, patient reluctance to go to hospitals is not desirable from a health standpoint, but it did allow hospitals some added flexibility to deal with the spike of Covid-19 cases. That flexibility has evaporated as patients are coming back to hospitals. For the nurses at MNR, this means that work has become an endless series of no-win situations. Castillo recounts being in charge of nine patients simultaneously and tending to ER patients for over four hours. In California, there are laws that set nurse-to-patient ratio requirements for hospitals. For example, there should be a minimum of 1 nurse for every 4 patients in Continuing Care units, and 1 nurse for every 2 patients in Critical Care and Intensive Care units. “When we don’t have enough nurses, we cannot provide the level of care that we would love to provide,” said one nurse who spoke with Left Voice. “We would love to be able to sit with our patients, ask them questions, get to know them, make sure that they understand the medications that they’re taking. These things are vitally important to someone’s health and to improving healthcare, generally.”
A bus with an ad plastered across its side stating, “Health care heroes. In a state of gratitude, Montefiore,” drove past the picket around noon on Wednesday, drawing jeers and boos from the nurses. Though it represents a small fraction of overall hospital spending, these ads were a visceral affront to the overworked and under protected nursing staff. As a nurse at the picket line explained, “We went from heroes a few months ago to zeroes,” she added, “The problem is that we as nurses are not being treated the way we are supposed to. We’re not getting the right PPE, that’s one of our main concerns. The staffing is a big issue. When we have 10 patients to one nurse, it’s almost impossible to care for them. You cannot give the proper care that you’re supposed to.” That sentiment is shared by the 98% of the NYSNA members who voted to authorize the strike.
Instead of listening to nurses’ demands, hospital management arranged for patients at MNR to be transferred to other hospitals in response to the two-day work stoppage. For the nurses on strike, this simply confirmed that management doesn’t have patients’ well-being in mind: “We told them we were going to do this, and instead of saying, ‘Let’s talk about it,’ they emptied the hospital out. Think about how unsafe it is to transfer an ICU patient who is on medications to bring their blood pressures up and on sedatives. Instead of keeping us there, getting more of us to help them out, they transferred them out.” Although hospital administrators have tried to portray the strike as an opportunistic power grab by the union, calling it ‘distressing’ and ‘grievous’, the nurses are clear that they are striking because of the value they place on patients’ safety. To those in ERs and ICUs, it’s perfectly clear that the health and safety of patients is inseparable from the health and safety of the staff. Michelle Gonzalez, an ICU nurse at Montefiore in the Bronx who joined the picket line in solidarity, argued, “When the nurses say, ‘We need more nurses,’ that’s how you better care for the community.”
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Private companies and healthcare systems continue to put profits over people. This is exposed day after day. Hospitals in the U.S. today are portrayed as benevolent houses of health care delivery, but they ultimately operate as large multimillion-dollar corporations. The bottom line comes before all else. New York, which was one of the first epicenters of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country, is no exception. These large institutions count on the complicity of politicians like Governor Cuomo who, despite the continued crisis in New York, hasn’t taken any measures to force these multimillionaire companies to expand staffing and capacities to deliver care. While Cuomo collects Emmys for flowery lunchtime speeches, workers are putting up a tireless fight for a better healthcare system. This fight is not limited to New York; healthcare workers across the U.S. are fighting for a system that truly puts health and well-being at the forefront. Hundreds of nursing home workers in Chicago, healthcare workers in Philadelphia, and nurses from Albany Med have also gone on strike, demanding higher wages, proper PPE and better staffing ratios. A victory for the healthcare workers in New Rochelle would be an inspiration for their coworkers at other hospitals to stand up for safe staffing ratios and better working conditions across the country.