June 2015 Issue
May 28, 2015

Nurses push for safe staffing levels so patients receive the care they deserve

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Anne Goldman, a UFT vice president and chair of NYSUT's Health Care Professionals Council, and nurses Howard Sandau and Cathy Sinclair, UFT Federation of Nurses members, press their case to lawmakers. Photo by Marty Kerins Jr.
Caption: Anne Goldman, a UFT vice president and chair of NYSUT's Health Care Professionals Council, and nurses Howard Sandau and Cathy Sinclair, UFT Federation of Nurses members, press their case to lawmakers. Photo by Marty Kerins Jr.

Someday, you, or someone you love, will need health care services — from the school nurse or hospital nurse or home health care nurse. And all of these professionals need booster shots in the form of critical legislation. STAT.

Nurses from NYSUT powered up with nurses from PEF, CWA and NYSNA during Health Care Lobby Day in May to stress the urgent need for passage of the Safe Staffing Ratios for Quality Care Act. The act establishes minimum nurse-to-patient ratios, based on acuity.

At a luncheon featuring legislators and union leaders, hundreds of nurses held up signs declaring FLOOR VOTE, NOW! for the Quality Care Act. Adequate levels have a significant impact on assessing, monitoring, caring for and safely discharging patients, the unions said. Their call is also supported by the New York State Wide Senior Action Council, Inc.

Nurses who work in home health care want a stop to mandatory overtime, the same as hospital nurses. This bill would restrict consecutive hours of required work by nurses in the home care setting except in cases of emergency.

A third bill marking minimum school nurse staffing standards would require a school nurse in every building in New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, Yonkers and Syracuse — the state's largest school districts.

Nurses wearing matching teal shirts crowded elevators, clutching folders as they found their way to upper floors of the Legislative Office Building and the Capitol to speak to lawmakers about why their vote is important on these issues.

In a surgical ICU, explained nurse Jennifer Morrell from Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Center, two nurses might be assigned to suddenly care for a patient in extreme need. That can mean five other patients are left alone -— and they likely are intubated, have bolts or drains, and have IVs. They are at risk for safety issues.

"Time is of the essence with what we do," said Amy Castiglia, a Brookhaven nurse.

Carol Braund, a retired nurse from SUNY Upstate Medical Center and member of United University Professions, said managing a hospital patient is complex. While hospital administrators continuously try to push back against safe staffing, citing costs, she said they will save money in the long run because patients not properly cared for are often readmitted. The hospital then faces a penalty fine if a patient returns within 30 days. The patient, meanwhile, has been subjected to additional stress and health compromises.

One busy nurse shared how a patient asked for a nursing supervisor, noting, "I'm your seventh patient and I might die."

Utica nurse Marianne Reardon held aloft a hefty stack of paper, then dropped it to the floor with a thud during a press conference. She said the 532 pages were a record of nurses' assignments despite objections in just three months at two hospitals. The objections were based on staffing and unsafe conditions.

Anne Goldman, United Federation of Teachers vice president for non-DOE employees (primarily health care professionals), and chair of NYSUT's Health Care Professionals Council, went on live radio at the Capitol, along with CWA and PEF nurses, to discuss how fewer nurses on the floor and at the bedside mean an increase in mortality, infection and readmission.

Syracuse school nurse and TA member Ann O'Hara said medically fragile children are now mainstreamed in schools, requiring much more complex and time-consuming care from the school nurse, who also has regular duties of attending to bruises, cuts, flu and illness. In some schools, one nurse has to hustle between buildings, extending response time.

She said children in many schools come from families living in poverty and do not have access to health care other than the school nurse.

Home health nurses told stories about being forced to work mandatory overtime because their employers will not hire enough nurses. Then they have to travel home, often distracted and exhausted. At home, they still must complete paperwork the same day.

"Many of us feel like second-class citizens," said visiting nurse Demetri Milios, UFT. "When are we supposed to get home to our families?" Home care nurses, he said, are frequently mandated to work overtime "with little or no warning, as frequently as the employer sees fit ... We have to work for fear of being dismissed or being written up."

"It's become a numbers game and we cannot play with people's lives," said Barbara Wisdom, a visiting nurse from the UFT and NYSUT's 2015 Health Care Professional Member of the Year.