June 12, 2008

Health care workers rally at the Capitol to end mandatory overtime for nurses

Source: NYSUT Newswire
Caption: Hundreds of health care workers battled 95 degree heat at the Capitol in Albany June 10 to call for an end to mandatory overtime for nurses. Photo by Betsy Sandberg.

The momentum was as high as the temperature as hundreds of nurses and related health care workers from NYSUT and four other unions gathered in the blazing sun on the steps of the Capitol in Albany this week to press for needed changes in health care.

Lawmakers looking out over the crowds promised they are close to passing a law that would eliminate mandatory overtime for nurses, a burning issue that nurses say costs lives and careers for those who are forced to work when they're fatigued.

"We're going to get it done," said Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, R-Brunswick), thanking the union leaders who have been negotiating with lawmakers and the governor's office to get the bill passed. "We are going to get a result for you this year."

Calling it "abuse of all of our nurses," Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, D-Monticello, pledged an end to mandatory overtime. Gunther, a nurse for many years, has carried the Assembly bill, which is now being negotiated in the Senate.

"You have my word," Assemblyman Minority Leader James Tedisco, R-Schenectady, told the crowd of health care unionists from NYSUT, CWA, PEF, SEIU 1199 and the New York State Nurses Association. "In this heat, we're glad we're surrounded by the best health care professionals!"

If the bill isn't passed by the time the legislative session ends June 23, "It's time for some mandatory overtime of our own," said Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island.

Anne Goldman, a United Federation of Teachers nurse who chairs NYSUT's Health Care Professionals Council, described mandatory overtime as "managerial abuse" in a day of meetings the union activists had with lawmakers before and after the rally.

NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue, who addressed the rally and members of the Health Care Professionals Council the evening before, noted that bus drivers are limited in the amount of time they can drive.

Airline pilots are also limited by law, Lorraine Seidel, NYSNA's program director, told the crowd.

"If they crash a plane, people die. Why is it different for nursing?" she asked.

Among the colorful union banners and signs promoting safer nurse working conditions, a little boy on the Capitol steps held a sign that read "Let my mommy come home."

As rally leaders read from a list of states that prohibit mandatory overtime, the crowd roared back: "What about New York?"

"The world didn't end in those states!" said Mary MacDonald, who heads the health care program at the American Federation of Teachers, one of NYSUT's national affiliates. Lawmakers "have to know we're not going away," she said in a luncheon speech following the rally

Nurses say they are prepared to work overtime in emergency situations, but not to fill scheduling gaps that management is already aware of.

If there were a medical chart for nurses, it would read that there are 237,000 nurses in New York, and 69,000 of them are not practicing, said Stephen Allinger, director of legislation for NYSUT. Many leave their chosen careers because of the working conditions.

Donahue thanked participants, noting those who attended did not have union release time but used a vacation day. "You're here because it's a really important part of your life," she said.

Nurse Merline Rameau came to the rally and lobby day with her four children – who were so affected by her being forced to work overtime that she left her hospital job to work for the Visiting Nurse Association of New York.

Minutes before her shift would end, she said, she would be told she had to stay on, even when she said she couldn't.

Nursing staff-patient ratios are another cause for concern. Joann Walsh of the UFT explained to Sen. John DeFrancisco , R-Syracuse, that the risk of a patient being injured or dying from improper care increases 70 percent when a nurse is assigned to more than four patients.

Staffing concerns have an impact on other health care issues, DeFrancisco noted, including practitioners concerned about the high cost of medical malpractice. "You've got to consider the source of the problem," he said. "People are overworked."

Union nurses also pressed lawmakers to approve a measure long sought by NYSUT that would require a school nurse in every school building, beginning with the "Big Five" cities of New York, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers.

"If a nurse is out at another building, there's no one to take care of them," said UFTer Maria Croswell, one of the many who left New York City at 5 a.m. to attend the rally.