PEF nurses learn about substance use treatment programs; voice dismay about salary, hazard pay
BY KATE MOSTACCIO
PEF nurses from across New York state gathered for the annual Nurses’ Luncheon at the 41st Annual PEF Convention in Albany. Union leaders joined them to commend them for their work and remind them that PEF stands with them in their fight for safe staffing and fair pay.
“We appreciate our nurses for how essential you are, but also for how your activism and leadership in PEF is without parallel,” said PEF Secretary-Treasurer Kay Alison Wilkie. “You are key aspects of our union. Thank you for all the work you do on the front lines of New York state.”
Statewide Nurses Committee (SWNC) Co-Chair Nora Higgins, a neonatal intensive care nurse at SUNY Stony Brook, opened the luncheon.
With their numbers making up 20 percent of PEF membership, nurses have a SWNC, Higgins said, which meets four times a year and focuses on issues facing the nursing and health care professions. Currently there are representatives from eight of the 12 PEF regions at the table.
“We have representatives from all different facets of nursing,” said SWNC Co-Chair Carolyn Cole, a community mental health nurse with the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD). “We try to encompass all the agencies so we better understand everyone.”
“The purpose is to get input from regions throughout the state and find common ground issue on which to focus on improving,” Higgins said. “Our regional meetings, held two to three times a year, allow the committee to share the statewide information and to let the regional members share their information.”
PEF President Wayne Spence said the union is aware of and working on solving the top issues facing nurses.
“Protect your license,” he told nurses, by filling out a Protest of Assignment when mandated to work overtime. And, keep filing them to keep the issue at the forefront. “There is no fine to the agency that purposely understaffs,” Spence said. “We have to address that.
“How can you put a dent in the opiate crisis if you’re not going to train nurses?” he said.
Spence said, in his agency, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), they’re unable to attract nurses when they are offering a grade 14 salary. “We need to reallocate and move the titles up,” he said.
Higgins said Dee Dodson, PEF nursing coordinator, is instrumental in efforts to improve the workplace for nurses. “Dee, along with Greg Amorosi, PEF political director, and the committee, organize our Lobby Day in the spring,” Higgins said. “We have also tagged a conference day with continuing education units (CEUs) to our Lobby Day for the last two years.”
Professional Assistance Program
Nurses, like the general public, may find themselves dealing with high-stress situations at the workplace or at home. Coupled with rampant understaffing at state facilities and regularly working overtime, cases of nurses struggling with alcohol and substance have been on the rise.
Higgins introduced guest speaker Suzanne Sullivan, a former PEF attorney for 20 years, who serves as the executive secretary of the Board of Nursing at the state Department of Education.
Sullivan outlined the Professional Assistance Program (PAP), which “helps nurses struggling with substance abuse get back on their feet so the greatest number of nurses can take care of New Yorkers.”
In attendance to go into detail were Program Director Jennifer Granato and Social Worker Evan Seiden.
PAP was established in 1985 as an alternative to discipline, Granato said. Nurses may voluntarily surrender their license while receiving treatment, rather than face charges of professional misconduct.
“They are granted immunity for two charges of professional misconduct,” Granato said. “The advantages of the program are that participants get expert advice and referrals and structured recovery.”
PAP is voluntary and confidential, Granato said, and can only be accessed by those who have not harmed a patient.
When participants complete the program and return to work they are monitored for a period of two years, according the PAP brochure. Initially, their hours may be regulated, their access to narcotics may be restricted, and efforts are made to keep them out of high-stress environments, Granato said.
The first step to getting assistance for PEF nurses should be to contact SPAN, the Statewide Peer Assistance for Nurses program, administered by the New York State Nurses Association, said Seiden.
“Our priority is protecting the public and getting people back into work,” Seiden said. “SPAN is an advocate for nurses.” SPAN assists nurses as they navigate the requirements of PAP, he said.
Higgins asked, as a union leader, how she should advise a struggling nurse. “What do you recommend would be the first few steps to protect that person?” she asked.
“As a union steward I would suggest to any employees to contact SPAN,” Sullivan said. “There is no risk in talking to SPAN. This resource is not New York state. They don’t rat out anybody, they are separate from the state.
“They treat you like a human being,” she said. “We want to save as many people as we can. It could be any one of us. We never give up on our nurses.”
Seiden said he doesn’t like the phrase “surrender” a license. “I think of it like escrow,” he said. “We’re keeping it safe for you. PAP has nothing to do with the Office of Professional Discipline.”
Some of the audience members raised the alarm that they couldn’t get through to the SPAN offices in Buffalo or Orange County. The program reps said they would look into the issue.
“Keep delivering awesome and excellent care to your patients,” Sullivan said. When asked how union leaders can assist the PAP mission, she said, “Do more outreach.”
PEF Legislative Director Gregory W. Amorosi spoke next about PEF’s successes in the legislative arena during the last session.
A proposal that would allow PEF-represented work-study nurses who were placed in an alternate retirement system to buy back their time and be placed into the state and local employees retirement system with other PEF members passed both houses.
“Stony Brook nurses were tricked into the wrong retirement plan,” Amorosi said. Previously, the proposal had been lumped in with others and resulted in a veto. This year, it was broken out and changed. “The nurses agree to pay back contributions, their share and the employers’,” Amorosi said. “It’s huge to be part of the state retirement system.”
The legislative department also wants to compel the legislature to do a study of salaries.
PEF members in the audience had a lot to say about salary. “I’ve never seen nurses treated seriously,” one said. “What’s being done to pay me for my master’s degree?”
Another pointed out how Stony Brook is treated like a “training center,” where nurses work for the SUNY hospital while they are learning and then move along to higher paying jobs in the private sector.
“Look at how much they spend educating them versus paying us more,” one member suggested.
“I feel like no one is listening to us,” said another. “We’re nurse scientists. We have the ability and knowledge to represent ourselves.”
Also on nurses’ minds was dangers on the job and hazard pay. While hazard pay is made available to secure centers, prisons and some OPWDD employees, there are PEF members at non-secure locations getting hurt on the job and unable to collect hazard pay.
A member said psychiatric centers and emergency departments are examples. “We have multiple staff injuries,” the member pointed out.
“We’re caught in the middle of not being protected,” said SWNC co-chair Cole. “The police look at you like that’s part of your job.” With the increase in managed home care patients, Cole said the hazards are very real.
PEF’s legislative department is also looking at passing an overtime enforcement bill this year, Amorosi told the crowd. “We have great sponsors,” he said. “All nurses would be covered. If they mandate, they get fined. Nurses who worked would get an extra 15 percent pay.”
Amorosi and PEF Vice President Randi DiAntonio are working on a massive coalition, including representatives from nursing homes, sheriff’s associations, and more, to look at the mentally ill population.
“We are joining with people who are now treating the mentally ill who we should be treating,” Amorosi said.
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