February 04, 2014

Nurses union prevails in 'David-and-Goliath' negotiations

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications

Staving off a strike that was already in the planning stages, the Federation of Nurses/UFT scored a significant triumph in successfully negotiating a strong contract with the Visiting Nurse Service of New York.

"It was David and Goliath," said Anne Goldman, special nursing representative to the United Federation of Teachers and chair of NYSUT's Health Care Professionals Council. "This was a tremendous victory for labor. We could only hold back a corporation of this magnitude by being in a powerful union."

VNS is the oldest and largest not-for-profit home health care agency in the nation.

The Federation of Nurses was able to prevent proposals that would have installed tiered pensions and health insurance premium payments.

"We said 'no,'" Goldman said of the 35-member negotiating team. "We've responded to working conditions and we're not bargaining to the bottom."

Refusing a tiered pension system is essential, she said, to aid the next generation of workers. "These are our kids, our grandkids," Goldman said. They also prevented the VNS push to discontinue the defined-benefit pension plan.

In addition, the Federation of Nurses secured two percent raises for each of the next two years, beginning April 1.

"This contract is a powerful opportunity to reflect on what we can do as a union. They had the tenacity of staying on message, and they worked together to get what they truly deserved," said Kathleen Donahue, NYSUT vice president who oversees health care.

Nurses in the approximately 1,800-member union have larger caseloads than usual since 275 visiting nurses were laid off by the VNS of New York in mid-December after the organization was suspended from the Medicaid Long Term Care Program for improperly enrolling patients. VNS had to repay $33.6 million after being charged with fraudulent billing. The company ultimately laid off 500 staff, including the nurses.

Visiting nurses care for the frail, elderly and those recuperating from surgery and illness.

"Morale among the nurses was not great," said Cora Shillingford, a member of the Federation of Nurses negotiating team. "There was a disconnect between the workers and the management." Right after the layoffs, she said VNS had elaborate holiday parties decorated by Tiffany, while around them people were losing their jobs.

"They mismanaged and then showed no sensitivity to layoffs," said Goldman.

An additional benefit negotiated in the new contract is that per-diem visiting nurses will now get compensation if they travel to a home for a scheduled health care visit and the patient is not there, Shillingford said. Before, they would not get any compensation, despite their time and travel costs.

Per-diem nurses will also see a two percent raise in their hourly rate in 2015.

The most intense part of the negotiations lasted for more than a month.

"We are elated and we are exhausted," said Shillingford. "It came down to the wire."

Assignments, locations and positions had already been established for a 7:30 a.m. UFT strike on Saturday, Feb. 1, in New York City, but agreement was reached on Friday. The UFT provided support during the negotiating process, Goldman said.

Meanwhile, those nurses who lost their jobs during last year's lay-offs have not been forgotten. The UFT, which is NYSUT's largest local, continues to offer mentoring, resume-writing assistance and has posted resources on its Federation of Nurses site at www.uft.org/chapters/federation-nurses. The link provides information on unemployment insurance, health care benefits and the union's Member Assistance Program.