SUNY Upstate workplace issues approaching critical mass
By SHERRY HALBROOK
When PEF members at SUNY Upstate University Hospital asked PEF for more help dealing with their issues, the union responded and is now ensuring that management will make the needed changes.
Meanwhile, PEF President Wayne Spence and key union staff are meeting with members and local PEF Division 320 leaders at the hospital January 25 and 26 to discuss their issues and the efforts that are underway. See FACEBOOK Posting
Spence, with key PEF staff and two PEF Executive Board members from the hospital met December 21 in Albany with representatives of the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations, SUNY Upstate and the SUNY System Administration, at their request to discuss the situation at the Syracuse hospital.
GOER requested the meeting after it learned the PEF Executive Board had authorized spending $150,000 for a billboard and organizing campaign exposing the risk to patient safety and health that results from chronic understaffing, mandated overtime for nurses and other issues there.
Spence immediately reported to the nurses directly via email on that meeting. He told them: “As a result of this meeting, and before spending a single dollar on a media campaign, we achieved some very positive agreements that address the overall intimidation and tone of the SUNY Upstate administration.
“You will be receiving a memo directly from SUNY Upstate regarding: Entitled meal breaks for PEF staff; and information on how to ‘opt-out’ of the current text messaging system during a ‘patient care emergency.’”
SUNY claims it can legally mandate nurses to work overtime if it declares patient care emergencies, since the state law forbidding mandatory overtime for nurses allows exceptions if there is a patient care emergency.
Spence also reported in his December 22 email to the nurses the following agreements resulting from his December 21 meeting with GOER and SUNY representatives:
• SUNY Upstate administration has agreed to take a look at the existing text language to see if there is any legal flexibility in wording that does not infer mandatory overtime;
• Both SUNY Upstate administration and PEF have agreed to pursue labor-management training in an effort to effectively communicate your workplace issues;
• (Agreement to) work toward labor-management training dates and regular local labor-management meetings; and
• SUNY Upstate administration will work with PEF to provide time and space for a membership meeting to be held in early January, when I will come to meet with you to discuss your concerns and next steps in ensuring we are effectively dealing with your workplace issues.”
Spence encouraged the nurses to continue filling out both the NYS Labor Department form at www.labor.ny.gov/formsdocs/wp/LS680.pdf, and the PEF Protest of Assignment form www.pef.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/nursepoaform.pdf) when they are forced to work overtime, “so there is a record of what is going on at your workplace. Please be aware that no manager can interfere with you filling out the form and I encourage you to reach out to your PEF field representative, David Snyder, or local union leader if problems arise. No employee should ever work in an atmosphere of intimidation!” See FACEBOOK posting
Both Snyder and Michael Farrell, PEF’s director of labor relations and organizing, cited the high number of disciplinary charges the hospital brings against its nurses. They said more than twice as many charges are brought against nurses at SUNY Upstate than at either of the other two SUNY hospitals, which are Stony Brook on Long Island and Downstate in Brooklyn. They also noted SUNY Upstate’s office of employee relations has more than twice as many staff as the other two hospitals combined.
Along with the understaffing and mandated overtime, the nurses have difficulty getting permission to use their accrued leave, or even taking meal breaks. They are sometimes assigned to “float” or be “on call” to hospital departments and units for which they are not properly trained. Patients are admitted without a proper nurse coverage plan for their treatment.
Spence said he and PEF leaders are closely monitoring the situation at SUNY Upstate to see if management fulfills its promises and if working conditions for the PEF members improve.
“While I view the December 21 meeting as positive on many levels, I recognize it represents only the beginning of our relationship rebuilding with SUNY Upstate,” Spence said. “I am hopeful the commitment for collaboration and continued dialogue will lead to continued improvements for our members at SUNY Upstate. We will continue to concentrate the approved resources on organizing and engagement activities using the PEF regional nurses committees.
“But please know,” Spence added, “our billboards are ready to go. We will not ignore threats to quality patient care and patient safety. If these problems persist, the public has a right to know. All it will take to activate the billboards and our public information campaign is a phone call from me to the billboard company; a phone call I will not hesitate to make if the agreements we made are not fulfilled.”
Spence encouraged the harried nurses to try to come to the January PEF membership meetings at the hospital and to ensure PEF has their home phone numbers and email addresses so it can communicate with them directly and privately about their workplace concerns.
“We will be at the hospital for the better part of two days to maximize our members’ opportunity to meet with us, regardless of what shifts they are working,” he said. “They need to know PEF is there for them. We hear them and we will work with them to achieve a fair workplace that protects both patients and them.”