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Nurses tell legislators chronic understaffing puts state health services on critical list

By SHERRY HALBROOK and KATE MOSTACCIO

July 13, 2021 — The pandemic has brought the crucial role of health care professionals, and nurses in particular, into sharp focus.  Political leaders, including the governor, have lavished praise on these essential workers for their skill, dedication and professionalism during a year of extreme challenges.  But little action has followed the rhetoric, and on May 25 PEF provided its nurses a way to tell state legislators their stories and focus on the desperate needs and challenges they face daily to save lives and care for those who are suffering.

The first-of-its-kind Virtual Nurse’s Lobby Day was held last month via Zoom.  PEF nurses spoke with lawmakers from their worksites, homes and cars. Divided into three Zoom rooms based on regions, lawmakers and legislative staffers heard from their own constituents and nurses statewide in a series of visits that gave unvarnished, heartbreaking insights into the lack of support and care the state gives its own health care services and the employees who provide them.

The nurses urged their legislators to support four very important bills aimed at addressing some of the most urgent issues:

  1. Enhancement and Dignity (NEED) Act – S.6424/A.7385;
  2. Sanction for Violation of Mandatory Overtime – S.1997/A.286;
  3. Hazard Pay – S.496/A.655; and
  4. Staff to Patient Ratios – S.1168-A/A.108-B

Primary sponsors of these bills were among the 23 legislators who met or sent representatives to meet with the nurses.  These lawmakers included state Senators Kevin Thomas, Elijah Richlin-Melnick Noon, Robert Jackson, Todd Kaminski, Samra Brouk, Sean Ryan, Andrew Gounardes, Gustavo Rivera, Julia Salazar, Rachel May and Brad Hoylman, as well as Assembly members Aileen Gunther, Ken Zebrowski, John McDonald, Kevin Cahill, Steven Englebright, Andrew Hevesi, Phil Steck, Peter Abbate, Karines Reyes, Jeff Dinowitz and Edward Braunstein.  Cahill, Jackson and Dinowitz are former PEF members.

Nurses told the lawmakers about being exposed to COVID-19 on the job, without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and then being required to continue working with COVID-infected clients after they became infected.  One nurse said she had COVID twice.  Others told of nurses who brought COVID home to their family members, only to see a loved one die from it.

Beyond the personal suffering, many nurses said understaffing at their worksites and agencies is reaching critical mass.  The lack of adequate staffing creates the problem of mandatory extra shifts and overtime, and it makes the work more dangerous for staff and patients.  Nurses are sometimes forced to work double and even triple shifts, and they may be “floated” to work in hospital units with which they are unfamiliar.

Low pay is contributing to the understaffing issue, the nurses said.  One nurse said she recruited three new nurses for her facility, but when they finished orientation and found they were not being paid as much as they had been told they would earn, they immediately quit.

“They are hired, they’re in orientation for two days and after they spend a short time on the floor, they run out screaming!  One new nurse ran away on her lunch break and never came back,” a nurse at a psychiatric center said.  “They just run away.”

PEF Region 4 Coordinator Bobbi Stafford said newer hires are in state pension Tiers 5 or 6, where benefits are too weak to incentivize retention.  “We can recruit, but we can’t retain,” she said.

PEF leaders told lawmakers that nursing vacancy rates are very high.  For instance, 25 percent to 80 percent of nursing positions are vacant at some state correctional facilities.  And at the Office for Persons with Developmental Disabilities, about 400 of the 1,700 jobs are vacant.  One reason for such high vacancy rates is that the state Division of Budget has not been releasing waivers to allow hiring, even though the hiring freeze was supposedly lifted.

One nurse said she had worked for the state for 25 years when she was finally promoted to a grade 21, but then took a demotion to go back to a grade 19 because she just “couldn’t keep going.”  Nurses usually start at a grade 14 and then move to a grade 16.

“I’ve been in health care for over 30 years and there have never been enough nurses,” said a nurse administrator at a state psychiatric center. “As a nurse administrator, I’m responsible for 160 patients and 40 staff, but I’m also working the floor when there are not enough RNs. That’s unsustainable. We really need to value our nurses and show them they are important. I worked six and seven days a week during COVID and I still haven’t recovered fully mentally or physically. We need to attract people and we need to show them that they are important and they are valued.”

“Stony Brook is the lowest-paid facility on Long Island,” said PEF Region 12 Coordinator Nora Higgins. “We’re not greedy, hungry people, but on Long Island our taxes and the cost of living are phenomenal. I work in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) and our kids are very fragile, very sick. Their ET tubes slip out very easily. When it hits the fan you want to be able to say, ‘Hey Chris, I need you.’ But, with the constant rotation of people, you don’t know who you’re working with. Not only their job skills, you don’t even know their names. Next week, in four months, they’ll be gone. Northwell is paying $20,000 to $30,000 more (than SUNY Stony Brook).”

PEF urges its nurses and other members to continue to speak out now on these issues and advocate for passage of the bills to address some of these issues. You can find the bills here.  Remember the 2021 legislative session is scheduled to end in mid-June, so try to call or email your legislators as soon as possible.  This is a critical period to make a strong impression.