Members give lawmakers glimpse of harsh realities for nurses
STORY AND PHOTOS BY SHERRY HALBROOK
Fifty PEF nurses and other health care professionals gave state legislators and their aides a stunning look at just how dangerous and challenging it is to provide quality health care to New Yorkers in state facilities and programs.
The members traveled to Albany to meet with members of the state Assembly and Senate April 30 and raise awareness of the increasingly desperate conditions many of them face in trying to provide quality care.
The nurses detailed a wide range of serious problems that are all rooted in unsafe staffing levels, often so low that when a nurse is attacked and calls for immediate help, there’s no one to respond. It may take three or more alarms (called a “Code Blue”) before anyone can come to their rescue.
They told of being assaulted by the people they care for in state psychiatric, correctional, and addiction-treatment programs and even programs for individuals with developmental disabilities.
The members shared stories of being strangled, punched, having their bones broken, muscles torn and strained, and many other serious injuries. These are not infrequent or isolated cases.
Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried and his staff were stunned when PEF Executive Board member Gwendolyn Culpepper told them that when she asked management how many staff injuries were reported at the New York City Children’s Center, a state Office of Mental Health facility where she is a recreation worker, she was informed that 155 injuries — nearly all from assaults — were reported in the first three months of 2019. She said the facility has approximately 250 employees.
Gottfried said that his committee has been working on this issue for 20 years or more, but now a bill to require safe staffing levels for state nurses is gaining strength in the Legislature this year and the governor put funding in the state budget for a work group that he will appoint to study the issue.
Gottfried said he is hopeful a safe staffing law may be enacted next year, if not this year.
Toba Omidiji, a psychiatric nurse 3 at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, and other nurses told Gottfried that the law passed several years ago to outlaw mandated or forced overtime for nurses in state programs has not resolved that problem.
Nurses can lose their professional license to practice nursing if they are found to have abandoned a patient. So, when they complete their scheduled shift (nursing shifts are often 12 hours long) and are ready to leave work, they are frequently told they must stay on the job because no nurse has arrived to replace them.
PEF Legislative Director Greg Amorosi told lawmakers the current law banning mandatory overtime, which provides few if any significant penalties for violators, is like imposing highway speed limits, but with no troopers to enforce them.
One nurse said she has transferred among state worksites several times to try to find better working conditions. When she worked in Brooklyn, she said she was sometimes the only registered nurse on duty to care for two 40-bed units. And when a patient was attacked in a hallway while she was getting medicine from a secure room, she was reprimanded and told that she must keep an eye on the patients at all times.
Carrie Saunders, the PEF council leader at Brooklyn Developmental Disabilities Services Office, said nurses are exhausted from working very long hours dealing with many patients, or clients. But then, if the nurse didn’t complete the required real-time documentation while she or he was trying to help someone experiencing a medical or psychiatric crisis, that nurse may be investigated and charged by the state Justice Center for People with Special Needs.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Saunders said, to see a nurse, who tried so hard to rise to every challenge over many hours, face discipline, instead of receiving the thanks and encouragement she or he needs and deserves.
A legislative staffer, told the PEF group that a bill has been submitted that aims to increase the supply of nurses by offering help with their student loans. The PEF nurses said they fear that, even if the bill becomes law, it will not improve staffing issues now. And when those new nurses graduate, they may not want to work in state programs that treat the most challenging cases.
The nurses said recruitment and retention of state nurses falters because the pay is not competitive, especially downstate. New state hires have Tier 6 pension benefits that are less generous than those of employees hired in earlier years, and working conditions are so harsh that even nurses who are dedicated to serving the public are discouraged.
The nurses reminded lawmakers that the state has not reallocated the salary grades for nursing titles in more than 25 years and the titles are at very low pay grades, if you consider the educational requirements and the life-and-death responsibilities of the jobs.
“There’s nothing attractive to draw nurses in,” Omidiji said.
A retired nurse told Gottfried she is often asked to come back to work, because the need is so desperate.
Several lawmakers reminded the nurses that allocating job titles to pay grades is done by the state Department of Civil Service with the Division of Budget — both under the control of the governor, and negotiating pay also is the purview of the governor’s office. The Legislature has no role in it, they said, except to pass pay bills to fund any raises provided by the contracts that the governor negotiates with state employee unions.
Nevertheless, legislators told the nurses that the timing may finally be right to advance their issues and it was a good thing that so many of them came to the capitol to share their stories and comments now.