Nurses unite, lobby for an overdue safe staffing law
Story and photos by DEBORAH A. MILES
New York continues to be a state where one registered nurse is responsible for the care of dozens of patients. The lack of safe-patient ratios is ballooning in state heath care facilities, and it is leading to a revolving door of nurses accepting a job, and then leaving shortly after, disgusted and stressed by the working conditions that hinder their role as caregivers.
This isn’t a new issue, but it has escalated to a point where nurses, who are represented by seven state labor unions including PEF, stood in solidarity May 8 in Albany. They all donned the same white T-shirts with a straight-forward message in red, “Safe Staffing.”
It was the annual Health Care Workers Lobby Day, and for more than a decade nurses from the tip of Long Island to Buffalo shared stories with cold hard facts about the consequences of low staffing with elected officials. This year, they hoped their personal experiences and conversations to make New York a leader in quality patient care would not only be heard, but acted upon.
Supporting the cause
Michele Sokolski, a licensed master social worker at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, was among the hundreds who walked the long corridors of the Legislative Office Building waiting for an appointment to meet with a senator or Assembly member. She represented the Creedmoor nurses, who were unable to attend due to short staffing.
“The nurses couldn’t take time off of work, they were all needed to take care of patients,” Sokolski said. “This was my first time going to Albany and participating in a lobby day. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was very nice to see the various unions gathering in solidarity to support each others’ issues.
“In the afternoon, I went with a group of PEF members who work at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. The senator’s aide told us he was a recent dialysis patient and said the unit had 18 chairs and only two nurses.
“I was thrilled to be a part of democracy in action. The union is a lot more than a place to get discount tickets. It’s about getting involved with politics, getting things accomplished. Everyone you see on TV about Albany came alive for me on lobby day. It was exciting to be involved.”
The retention factor
This was the fifth Health Care Workers Lobby Day that Shanthi Venkatachalam has attended. She is a nurse at Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood where one nurse is assigned to 26 patients in psychiatric rehabilitation wards, with a similar ratio in the admission wards. There are approximately 100 nurses who work at Pilgrim, one of the largest adult psychiatric centers on Long Island with approximately 280 inpatient beds and more than 1,500 outpatient beds that serve the residents of Nassau and Suffolk Counties.
“I see so many nurses going through stressful situations at the job because of unsafe staffing rations. That actually jeopardizes patient health. At Pilgrim, we also have difficulty retaining nurses. Some leave because they look at the job itself, and then they look at the paycheck. We have not been able to retain nurses in the last few years.
“All nurses deserve to have the Safe Quality of Care Act become a law. If we could have two nurses in a ward, more patient care could be accomplished within the time frame we have with patients.
“This year, I noticed all the union members at lobby day wore the same shirts. I hope that solidarity empowers us and convinces our elected officials that this is the year to make safe staffing a law,” Venkatachalam said.
Time for a law
Susan Billi, an RN and health care surveyor at the State Health Department, agreed.
“Our representatives should give this careful consideration, and they should pass this bill. I have witnessed many issues concerning residents in nursing homes that I feel are related to the shortage of staff in various facilities. Having a law would make a great impact for nursing home residents, as well as patients in hospitals and every health care setting.”
Laurie Sunshine, Darlene Majchrowicz and Valerie Reisdorf, are nurses who work at the state Office For People With Developmental Disabilities in West Seneca. They agreed that staffing levels need to be improved at all statewide health care facilities.
“Short staffing affects everyone. Many of our nurses are seasoned professionals with years of experience. We need a strong law to ensure safe staffing levels are adequate to keep us safe at work, or in our personal lives as patients, or when advocating for family members,” Majchrowicz said.
A luncheon and rally took place at the Convention Center at the Empire State Plaza where the sponsor of the bill, Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, and one of its many co-sponsors, Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, commended the nurses for returning each year to fight for safe staffing.
PEF President Wayne Spence also addressed the nurses and said, “It took years to get the Mandatory Overtime Bill signed into law, but we did it. We will do it again with safe staffing, as long as we stand together in solidarity and have the will to persevere.”
Visit the PEF Nurses homepage for other valuable information.