PEF nurses, EMS staff rally for pay equity, respect, staff retention and to support union lawsuit
BY KATHERINE MOSTACCIO
The sun was shining down as PEF nurses, EMS workers and their supporters rallied outside SUNY Stony Brook University Hospital, raising signs emblazoned with “Safe Staffing for Nurses,” “Can’t Retain Nurses, Can’t Maintain Safety,” “Protect Quality Nursing Care,” and “Union Strong.”
PEF President Wayne Spence and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten called for respect and dignity for nurses; highlighted staffing, retention and pay inequity issues; and talked about union efforts to push SUNY administration to recruit and retain qualified staff.
“We know what is happening at this hospital,” said President Spence. “We know our nurses are under attack and when one of us is under attack, we are all under attack. People are trying to say this is about us. I don’t think it’s about us. I don’t think it’s about pay. Because if it was really about pay, my understanding is that the pay inequity between nurses here at the only Level 1 Trauma Center in Suffolk County, is between $20,000 and $30,000 less. So if it really was about money, we would have left. Folks would have left in droves.
“So I don’t think it’s about money, per se,” he continued. “I think it’s about the feeling you as nurses have for the people that come into that door and check in as a patient. I think you want the best quality care for them. How can caregivers give the best quality care if they don’t have basic resources?”
Spence asked the assembled nurses to confirm what he had heard — “I’m told that on average you guys do 12-hour shifts,” he said. “I’m told that time and time again during your 12-hour shifts, none of you get the two 15-minute breaks and a meal break.” He was met with affirmations. To drive the point home, he pulled out a metal lunchbox. “I’ve got this lunchbox here. It’s empty. You know why it’s empty? It makes no sense for you to bring lunch to work because you’re never going to get the time to take a lunch. Twelves hours and they don’t get a meal break. That is ridiculous.”
To add even more insult, when do nurses get to use the restroom, Spence asked. “Unless you have bladders of steel,” he said, “I’m told in certain units some of you guys are resorting to this …” and he held up a package of Depends adult diapers.
“If you’re dehydrated, and you’re not getting a meal break, how do you provide the best quality of care to the people that check into this place?” Spence asked. “I have to tell you that this is not a good recipe to give quality care. And that is why we are here. It is not just about salary.”
When retention and recruitment issues cropped up in other Civil Service areas, nurses in those state agencies and regions were able to receive more appropriate and equal geographical compensation. PEF was ready to work with SUNY, President Spence said, but has run up against a brick wall.
“After hearing from so many of you about the capricious and irrational implementation of your geo pay, we filed a lawsuit challenging the improperly implemented salary adjustments,” President Spence said. “We know for a fact that Stony Brook did not follow the rules on how to implement the geo pay differential. We believe that it is not acceptable to discriminate against workers based on their age — and that is exactly what happened.”
On April 8, PEF’s Office of Counsel filed an Article 78 Special Proceeding in State Supreme Court in Albany County, challenging the implementation of salary adjustments instituted at Stony Brook in December 2018 for Teaching and Research Nurses 2 and 3 pursuant to Education Law § 355-a and Civil Service Law § 130(14).
The basis for the lawsuit was that the implementation was arbitrary, capricious, irrational and contrary to law, according to the lawsuit, because:
- The adjustments were not given in a uniform manner, based on title and geographic location, as required by the statute, which resulted in newly hired nurses with less experience receiving more favorable salary adjustments than more experienced nurses;
- The adjustments discriminated on the basis of age, because the nurses who received greater salary adjustments are those with less seniority and experience, who tend to be younger than the more experienced nurses who received lower adjustments; and
- The statutory procedures that the State must adhere to in evaluating and implementing salary adjustments were not followed. The primary remedy that PEF sought was to remand the matter to Stony Brook so it can provide a uniform adjustment to all nurses.
“What can you do in the meantime,” President Spence asked those assembled. “I will ask that you please continue to fill out the Protest of Assignment Forms, which can be done right online from the PEF website. This important information helps us help you.”
He added: “We’re going all the way with this.”
PEF Region 12 Coordinator Nora Higgins, a neonatal intensive care nurse at Stony Brook, began her career at Stony Brook in 1988. “I owe a lot to the institution and to my union for that education,” she said. “I wish to see the hospital succeed and desperately hope the decision makers heed our second warning. We warned them last year that things were not going well.”
Higgins asked members to contact her with information related to the impact of the geographic disbursement on their unit. “The answers were hauntingly similar,” she said. “Five to six nurses have left every unit that contacted me since December. I work in the NICU and six people have resigned on just the one month schedule we are currently in. Sadly a lot of young people are leaving.”
Most of those leaving have been on the job less than five years. With the Tier 6 costing new hires $7,000 per year, the geo pay awarded to younger nurses doesn’t cover that, Higgins said. “They are still short. Now they are getting all kinds of solicitations from hospitals that are giving them $15,000 to $20,000 more than we can offer. It’s a recipe for disaster on our behalf.”
Debbie Del Giorno, a labor and delivery nurse, who previously worked at St. Charles Hospital on Long Island — where she said she made a lot more money — was proud to join the Stony Brook family. “I had no idea that this is what we were dealing with,” she said. “It is a shame. It is an embarrassment. I would love to leave but I do love my job and my coworkers. We’re fighting for a cause here. And we’re going to make a change.”
She urged nurses to fill out the Protest of Assignment and Mandatory Overtime forms available to them. “We need a paper trail,” she said. “We need to show proof to our management that we aren’t getting meal breaks. I protest assignments all the time. It’s a way to protect ourselves and our license. It’s a way to get our union involved and to protect our patients.”
Higgins agreed. “We can’t physically fight back, but Protest of Assignment and Mandatory Overtime forms are our tools to fight back,” she said.
AFT President Weingarten lent her voice to the calls for equity, safe staffing and respect. “In the public sector, the services will always be there but in exchange they must treat the people who provide the services fairly,” she said. “Do this paperwork. These are the things that in the public sector, if we do, we will create a way that they cannot ignore us. That is the first step.”
Weingarten said nurses and teachers share similar difficulties. “Frankly, what happens with nurses is very similar to what happens with teachers,” she said. “We will take everything that people throw at us and we will try to do it because we decided to be in these jobs because we want to make a difference in the lives of people. You are at Stony Brook because you want to save peoples’ lives. Because you want them to be healthier.
“We need the freedom to care, not just the impulse to care,” she said. “We have to do something that is incredibly difficult for us to do, which is to fight for ourselves. When we fight for ourselves, we will ultimately be able to fight for our patients. When we fight for ourselves, we’ll ultimately be able to have the freedom to care. To have the conditions to actually do our jobs.”
United University Professors (UUP) Chapter President Carolyn Kube came out to show support for PEF nurses and EMS. “We’re here to support you,” she said. “I know a lot of my members are your managers. They are worried about safety. They want a good work environment. They want their nurses to be happy. We’re here to support you to make sure that our patient care is the best patient care on Long Island.”
“Have we become so far removed from the human spirit that we are solely judged by how timely we chart, with no regard to how we interact and care about our patients and their families?” Higgins said. “We respect and care about our patients. We ask that we get that same respect and care to build a safe environment and a respectable future. #fundourfuture. #freedomtocare.”