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PEF nurses testify before SUNY Board of Trustees on salary disparity, COVID pay

By KATE MOSTACCIO

As the COVID-19 pandemic rips through the country, PEF nurses remain on the frontlines in hospitals, nursing homes, and congregate facilities across New York State.

Nurses at SUNY Stony Brook, SUNY Upstate and SUNY Downstate, all major medical centers in their respective communities, care for countless COVID patients every day – and they are doing it for sometimes substantially less pay than neighboring professionals.

“I have worked at Stony Brook for 32 years,” said PEF Region 12 Coordinator Nora Higgins, a neonatal intensive care nurse and chair of the SUNY labor/management committee. “Nursing in general has not had a salary grade increase in decades, not since I arrived in 1988.”

Some campaigns for improvements were successful over the years, such as geographic pay enhancements meant to help recruit and retain nurses, but those gains applied unfairly had the opposite impact. In trying to keep new nurses from leaving for higher-paying jobs, SUNY increased new employee pay more than the pay of long-time employees, wreaking havoc on morale.

PEF Region 12 Coordinator Nora Higgins

“The plan backfired,” Higgins said. “Geographics and disparaged disbursement created animosity and people left. A person there for 10 years got $1,000 and people just off orientation got $6,000.” And, while the trustees approved the geographic pay with the intention that “no seasoned nurse is making less than a new nurse,” Higgins said, “when they did this it absolutely did put newer employees over people there longer.”

Fellow Stony Brook nurse Amy Lee Palcholk, an assistant professor at Suffolk County Community College who has been advocating for appropriate levels of personal protective equipment (PPE) since the start of the pandemic, echoed Higgins’ sentiments on geographic pay.

“What was clear was that nurses with less experience, education and years of service received more of an increase than those with many years of experience, education and service,” she told the trustees. “What became evident over the weeks to come was that the Executive Board of Stony Brook Hospital advocated for the inequitable disbursement thinking it would keep nurses with less experience from leaving Stony Brook Medicine. It actually didn’t.”

Those new nurses still moved on to higher-paying jobs at private hospitals in their areas of expertise.

“Nurses can go to Stony Brook for one to two years and then go to the competition and their salary is $10,000 to $40,000 more, based on their area of expertise,” Palcholk said. A state worker at Stony Brook for 30 years can easily make $250,000 less than nurses at neighboring facilities over the course of their career.

The pandemic hit SUNY hospitals hard, Higgins and Palcholk said. But, unlike nearby private hospitals, SUNY staff did not receive any bonuses or hazard pay for their work above and beyond the norm during the crisis.

“All of our neighboring institutions offered bonuses to their staff,” Palcholk said, “anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000, in time and in money. Stony Brook nurses, ancillary staff and housekeeping have received nothing. I understand the state is under distress and we have some monetary issues, but at no time should the nurses, respiratory staff, doctors, housekeeping, and clerks have to continue to suffer with less pay. Equal work should mean equal pay. It’s really sad that we are not paid like our colleagues.”

Higgins also advocated for pay increases for EMS staff at Stony Brook.

“Stony Brook has the only state-run EMT department,” she said. The highly-skilled and trained members were overlooked for geographic pay and salary grade increases, leaving them essentially “the working poor” on Long Island, Higgins said.

Pay disparity isn’t the only compensation issue facing SUNY workers. Vacation time and holidays also fall short of the competition.

A memorandum of understanding between employees and SUNY provides for two weeks of paid annual time and three major holidays off at Stony Brook – “but management has chosen to ignore that and cheat members out of three holidays, replacing them with a ‘pass day’,” Higgins said. “The big picture is that employees only have two weeks of paid time off for annual vacation and nothing else.”

By comparison, state employees in office settings get 13 holidays off, she noted.

“This was put in place for recruitment and retention,” she said. “Now they are pulling it away. They’re saying you don’t need a holiday. Very few people are getting off with holiday time.”

Higgins asked the Board of Trustees to take action and be part of the solution for health care workers.

“As each day passes, the price we pay for our patients’ lives becomes more insurmountable,” she said. “We desperately need financial support and retention at a higher capacity for all our health care workers.”