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‘Heroes Don’t Get Zeroes’: Hundreds turn out to rally for COVID pay at Stony Brook

‘Heroes Don’t Get Zeros’: Hundreds turn out to rally for COVID pay at Stony Brook 

By Kate Mostaccio

Over the course of the day, 400 health care workers from multiple unions joined forces July 22 to raise the same rallying cry at Stony Brook University Hospital – heroes don’t get zeroes and they deserve the same benefits as their private-sector colleagues amid the challenges and risks of COVID-19.

At its peak, the multi-union rally saw 275 union members from PEF, United University Professions (UUP), 1199 SEIU United Health Care Workers East, and Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) gathered around the hospital entrance with signs and banners calling for COVID pay commensurate with what other area hospital workers were given earlier this year.

PEF President Wayne Spence expressed his full support for the hardworking heroes at Stony Brook.

“As COVID-19 surged on Long Island, these brave men and women continued to work tirelessly every day, risking their own lives, to care for the people of this community,” Spence said. “The work they did was no different than the work of their counterparts at neighboring hospitals. These dedicated professionals deserve the same respect.”

For PEF leaders and members at Stony Brook, pay inequities are nothing new and they have stood outside the hospital asking for fair treatment on numerous other occasions.

“This is the third time many of us are here, for many of the same reasons, and it all comes down to respect,” said Region 12 Coordinator and Stony Brook nurse, Nora Higgins. “The first event was to essentially beg to save our staff from leaving to significantly higher pay at other local hospitals. The second came after giving testimony to the SUNY Board of Trustees asking for increased geographic pay to again recruit and retain staff.

“Now, we are challenged to the extreme with a pandemic,” Higgins said. “As proclaimed in many a Lobby Day for safe staffing, we will and we did face this crisis head on. We showed up! Our management can and must do better to respect all employees at Stony Brook facilities in Suffolk County.

“We need consistent supplies to protect our patients and ourselves,” Higgins said. “We need management that will uphold evidence-based infection control standards and not what the CDC or the DOH waters down. We seek, similar to our neighboring hospitals, paid time off and $2,500 for the brave union brothers and sisters who put the job before all to make Stony Brook what it is today!”

Health care workers in New York City and on Long Island have withstood the worst of the COVID pandemic. In recognition of their sacrifices, the Northwell Health system gave its health care workers a $2,500 lump sum bonus and a week of paid vacation. Stony Brook has not followed suit and not because they can’t. SUNY hospital administration can petition the SUNY Board of Trustees for funds to provide hospital employees with similar benefits. The rally sought to urge administrators to exercise that right.

PEF Division 225 Council Leader Tony Tirella said the rally was a unique show of solidarity across multiple unions and served as a way of putting the issue in the public eye.

“On July 22 at Stony Brook Medical Center, an unprecedented event occurred. Four unions, CSEA, PEF, UUP and 1199, united in solidarity to rally for some sort of financial benefit for their frontline workers (a.k.a heroes) who risked their lives to care for COVID-19 patients,” Tirella said. “If it wasn’t for their selflessness many of these patients would not have survived. All other hospitals in the area rewarded their frontline workers. All but one – Stony Brook.

“It is time that Stony Brook made some sort of monetary reward for its heroes,” he said. “This rally, done on a sweltering hot day, was to make management and the community aware of this injustice.”

PEF Field Representative Lisa Pinkard, who helped organize the rally with Field Representative Teddy Vazquez, said the rally was a powerful day of action.

“I am proud to be part of the movement that is taking place at Stony Brook hospital,” Pinkard said. “Make no mistake, that is what this is – a movement. The nurses are coming together to lift their voices for what they deserve. They are standing up for their own self worth as professionals. They are demanding dignity.

“Now, we want to see it materialize,” she said. “This is about more than money – it’s about respect. It is a new era for Stony Brook. The members should be proud of themselves for how far they’ve come.”

Pinkard said it is challenging for nurses with only 30-minute breaks to make it to a rally. That didn’t stop them. She saw nurses come out, sign petitions, cheer on the rally, and race back to work. But they showed up and that was exciting.

“Just the fact that they came out,” she said. “They are realizing their own self worth.”

Vazquez said the unions had tried talking with hospital management before turning to a rally.

“We had numerous discussions with management about getting COVID pay for our members,” he said. “We were given the runaround. It was time. The group of unions all decided we were going to do it unified. That’s the way we had been negotiating.”

In the days leading up to the rally, the participating unions did a lot of member engagement – leafleting, texting campaigns and reaching out to health care workers through a variety of means. It seems to have paid off.

“We had a good time,” Vazquez said. “I think the members appreciated it. They were also cheering themselves. It’s an accomplishment what they’ve done, saving peoples’ lives while risking their own. They’re very dedicated like that.”

Long Island and Suffolk County legislators stand behind these vital health care workers.

“Our essential workers have done the unimaginable over the last four months, carrying us through this crisis and making sure we were able to come out the other side,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. “Their sacrifices should not go unrecognized. These heroes deserve hazard pay for everything they did to support our communities throughout this crisis.”

Suffolk County Legislature Presiding Officer Rob Calarco praised the workers for the work they have done and will do in the coming days.

“Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, our health care heroes and essential workers have been putting their lives on the line to protect and support others,” Calarco said. “Giving these workers pandemic pay is the right thing to do. They have already earned it, and we know that until there is a vaccine these men and women will continue to put their own health and safety at risk to help others survive the challenges thrust upon them by this public health emergency. These workers have never hesitated to do what is necessary, and neither should we.”

Statewide legislators are also lending their voice to the fight.

“In the midst of a deadly pandemic the risks that health care workers take daily is an amazing display of professionalism, compassion, and courage,” said State Assemblyman Steve Englebright, representing Assembly District 4, which includes Stony Brook. “Less amazing is the lack of market competitive compensation for this dangerous work. I applaud their brave commitment to the care of our families and loved ones whenever they are stricken with the COVID-19 virus and call upon our public institutions to reciprocate with appropriate pay so that these remarkable employees will be predictably retained and enabled to continue their essential work.”

New York State Sen. Monica R. Martinez said health care workers and essential employees have been, and continue to be, on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. “They have worked day in and day out, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week putting their lives on the line,” she said. “During this time, we cannot and should not turn our backs on them. They deserve hazard pay and it’s our turn to take care of them just like they took care of us and continue to do so.”

Laura Ahearn, a Democrat for Senate District 1, supports the workers’ calls for fair compensation.

“I am proud to stand with Suffolk’s hardworking essential public workers who have put their lives on the line in order to help us all survive during this pandemic,” Ahearn said. “I strongly believe that we must provide these heroes with COVID-19 financial and medical benefits to show solidarity and appreciation for their amazing work during such unprecedented and dangerous times.”

The rally at Stony Brook comes at a time when the hospital was among 25 hospitals out of 395 that received the largest slices of a $12 billion federal funding payout in May, part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Stony Brook’s share of that payout was $83.3 million.

Regional news media also picked up the story. See reports here and here.