PEF nurses learn about workplace bullying, building health and safety committees during conference day
STORY AND PHOTOS BY KATHERINE MOSTACCIO
Health and safety, bullying in the workplace, and labor management took center stage at a conference for PEF nurses held Monday, April 29, at PEF headquarters in Latham.
Statewide Nurses Committee (SWNC) Co-Chairs Carolyn Cole, a community mental health nurse with OPWDD in Region 5, and Nora Higgins, a teaching and research nurse 2 at SUNY Stony Brook Hospital and Region 12 coordinator, kicked off the conference by having attendees fill out and hand in PEF recommitment cards.
In the aftermath of the Janus Supreme Court decision, “we are higher in our numbers than before,” Higgins said. “But there are several more cases in the pipeline.” Signing the recommitment cards builds power to bring to the collective bargaining table, the co-chairs said.
“Thank you for the commitment,” Cole said. “I’ve been a pretty strong advocate for a few years,” she added, drawing some laughs. “I’m tired of nurses being pushed aside. We’re in a profession that took a long time to be recognized as a profession. I’ll be damned if we’re pushed aside.”
One of the nurses in the audience pointed out that others from their facility might have attended but it was difficult to get the time. “Nurses on the floor have a really hard time getting time off to go to these conferences,” the PEF member said.
“Every nurse gets three professional days a year,” Cole said. The statewide committee is looking into doing a professional day tied to a traveling event. “We encourage you to send us your ideas,” she said. “Contact your Statewide Nurses Committee members. I represent six counties. It’s not easy to get to everywhere.”
Attendees were also encouraged to contribute funds to the Committee on Political Education (COPE). According to the PEF website, COPE contributions help elect candidates for national office who support legislation, funding, and policies that support union priorities.
In their materials, attendees were given a Mandatory Overtime for Nurses Complaint Form. “We need you guys to really push nurses to fill these out,” Cole said. She urged attendees to have nurses send the form to their supervisor and their PEF council leader.
The message was largely the same for the Protest of Assignment Form. “We can do everyone’s job, but who can do ours?” Cole said. “They want us to do more with less. It can cause problems. Pay attention to those forms.” (More resources are available at the PEF Nurses Homepage.)
Bullying in the workplace
Workplace bullying – what it is and what it is not – dominated the room after lunch. Participants were led by PEF Health and Safety Specialist Shawn Bobb.
Someone being bullied at work may “have feelings of never being good enough.” Or they may feel “chronic agitation and anxiety.” They may also have a constant sense of doom, Bobb said. Whatever they are feeling – it’s extremely stressful on their mind and body.
“We can’t live without some levels of stress,” Bobb said. “But our bodies are designed to deal with a moment of stress and then recuperate, not the constant stress we see in workplace bullying situations.”
Prolonged periods of stress can have negative impacts on your health he told attendees, including cardiovascular, blood pressure, immune system and musculoskeletal problems. And bullying doesn’t just affect the person being bullied.
Bullying can cause numerous problems in the workplace and for the organization as well. A Finnish study of municipal workers showed that bystanders also “suffer stress and psychological ill-health when someone is bullied in the workplace,” Bobb’s presentation revealed. “And if people spend all that time at work worrying about bullying – what aren’t they doing?”
“Working,” the audience resoundingly agreed.
A UNC Business School at Chapel Hill study showed the impact workplace bullying has on staffing: 12 percent gave up and changed jobs; 28 percent missed work to avoid the bully; and 52 percent spent time worrying about being bullied, rather than working. And for 1 in 5 targeted by bullies, the quality of their work decreased.
So what can you do?
Bobb said maintaining a healthy diet, exercising, getting enough sleep, or using relaxation and meditation techniques, are good habits for individuals. “But if the workplace environment doesn’t change, the personal interventions won’t control the impact of occupational stress,” Bobb said. Something needs to be done to address the bullying itself.
The first step is to regain control. “Recognize that you are being bullied,” Bobb said. “You are not the problem. It’s not your fault. It’s a power play for that person.” Bullying is about control, he said. “It has nothing to do with your performance.”
Members should keep a diary detailing the bullying behavior. “Don’t lash out physically,” Bobb said. “That’s workplace violence.” He advised creating a strong paper trail and gathering copies of any documentation. “Expect them to deny it,” he said.
A key point — you probably aren’t alone. “Get people to band together,” Bobb said. “The victim is probably not the bully’s first victim.” Unions are the very definition of “collective action” — and workplace bullying is an issue we can all get behind. Union stewards and council leaders can work with members to address the problem.
Union leaders should listen, support, build rapport; obtain permission from the victim before taking any action; investigate the matter; look for underlying causes and address them with management; and, if it turns out to not be bullying, they can look for other ways to resolve the conflict. Union reps can help deal with the issues at a systemic level to address the hostile work place.
The end goal is establish a system to effectively deal with workplace bullying. There are a number of ways that PEF leaders and members can address the problem. Bobb outlined the elements of a workplace bullying prevention campaign — starting with a survey of the membership. Conduct the survey in a location where surveys can be handed out and then collected on the spot. “Get an idea how significant is the issue of bullying at your workplace,” he said.
Once the issues are identified, collect the data. Are there policies in place already to address bullying? The Workplace Violence Prevention Program may be such a program. Look into statistics about why people have left employment. “Do we have information that people have left because of bullying?”
Using this data, a case can be made to management at local Health and Safety and/or Labor Management Committee meetings to put controls in place to address workplace bullying.
SWNC Co-Chair Carolyn Cole’s facility deals with bullying. “There’s lots of bullying,” she said. As they saw the need growing and more and more instances of bullying, they formed a Workplace Violence Committee. The committee includes three unions and the human resources department.
Workplace violence reports are being brought forward and “HR has no choice but to bring it to Exec,” Cole said. “If they continually see the same name brought up, they have to do something.”
A PEF nurse in attendance recalled several coworkers who submitted complaints to managers and labor relations — but saw no change. “They were almost demoralized,” he said.
Bobb asked if it had been brought to a PEF rep. “You want to set up a protocol because people do become demoralized,” he said. “Labor management is not required to notify the complainant.” But negotiations can devise a system that satisfies the situation in some fashion.
Effective Health and Safety committees
The final workshop of the day tackled effective health and safety committees. Paige Engelhardt, an OSH Specialist from the PEF Health and Safety Department, jumped right in. “Does anybody work in an old building?” She asked. “Could anyone’s building have asbestos? Mold? Are any facilities understaffed or overcrowded? Did injuries occur from patient handling practices?” The questions were met with nods and affirmatives.
Health and Safety Committees are required for every worksite by PEF/NYS Contract Article 18. The basic functions of the committee are to discuss health and safety policies and procedures, create and maintain interest in health and safety, identify and analyze hazards, and recommend solutions.
Tools to identify problems in the workplace include reviewing logs, such as the SH900. The log will name the person, the type of employee, what happened, and how long they were out of work. Review workers’ compensation data. Review incident reports. There may also be site visits, meetings, and focus groups.
Be prepared for the meeting and make a strong case. Gather all the facts and prepare a financial case. As an example, Engelhardt provided information showing DOCCS, OMH, OPWDD, and OCFS were the “Big 4” — agencies with the highest incident rates and costs in the 2016-2017 Annual Report of NYS Government Employees’ Workers’ Compensation Claims. “If you have any way of reducing this number when working on an H&S issue, management is probably going to listen,” Engelhardt said.
At that, a nurse immediately chimed in: “We countered with increase staff but they don’t listen to you.” Another added, “It’s so obvious to everyone in this room – the answer is staffing.”
There is power in the numbers, Engelhardt pointed out. “These numbers can prove understaffing,” she said. “Short-staffing is a labor management issue – the employees, management and the organization can benefit from resolving the problems.”
Engelhardt said gains for one facility can become gains for another. “When we get things for one, we can get things for others,” she said. “Advertise those wins that Health and Safety has accomplished.”
Approaching the issues can be done in various ways, Engelhardt said. One way is proactively, through risk analysis, walkthroughs, pre-planning, action plans, and trainings, among others. The other is reactively, with incident response, emergency response, emergency medical treatment, grievances, and PESH complaints.
Realistically, Engelhardt said both plans are necessary. “If you have proactive measures and they fail, you have to resort to a reactive plan,” she said. “If the reactive plan fails, you discuss the failures and then you set a new, proactive, plan.”
Health and Safety committees must meet four times a year, at minimum – or more frequently in higher risk areas.
Joseph Cook from the State Department of Labor led a discussion on the proper use of a Public Employee Safety and Health (PESH) Act complaint.
He covered the kinds of violations that can result in a PESH complaint, how to file the complaint, and the timeframe one can expect the process to take from beginning to end.
Following the PESH workshop, attendees dove into a talk focused on understanding the difference between “reallocation” and “reclassification” of nursing titles led by a representative from the PEF Legislative Office.
A need for advocacy
A group of the nurses who attended the conference were staying in Albany to lobby the following day. Among the top issues was safe staffing. PEF Nurse Coordinator Doris “Dee” Dodson noted that the State Department of Health’s upcoming minimum staffing study will only look at nursing homes and hospitals.
“We need to be in the legislators’ faces and let them know there are other facilities,” Dodson said. “PEF members care for people 24/7. We all have staffing issues. It needs to be all inclusive.”
Carolyn Cole joined in with another top issue. “Why is there such a shortage? Why … is it money? They need to understand.” A member echoed her sentiments: “We’re not competitive. It’s not sustainable.”