New Rochelle nurses fight for more staff, new contract

By Seth Galinsky
December 28, 2020

After a spirited two-day strike by 200 nurses at Montefiore Health System’s hospital in New Rochelle Dec. 1 and 2, the New York State Nurses Association and the bosses are back at the negotiating table. Front and center is the nurses’ fight for more hiring and the safety of their patients and themselves.

Staffing shortages at hospitals are nothing new, but grew worse with the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been strikes and protests for more staff at hospitals and nursing homes across the country.

“If you can safely care for one or two patients, but you’re given four or five, you have to make some decisions about who you’re going to rescue,”  Nurses Association President Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez told the London Financial Times. “That is just a horrible thing for health professionals to confront.”

Patient mortality rates jump 7% for each additional patient a nurse is assigned, the Financial Times reported Dec. 10.

“This is bad commentary on how U.S. hospitals are trying to manage staffing even in normal circumstances,” Linda Aiken, a nursing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told the paper. “They’re very much in love with this idea of just-in-time staffing and just-in-time supplies. It is a manufacturing idea that doesn’t work out in hospitals.”

Claiming the hospital chain had offered the nurses “a good deal,” Montefiore spokesman Marcos Crespo charged the day before the strike began that the union “is striking because they want the power to dictate staffing assignments and hand out plum positions to their friends.”

The nurses, who voted 98.4% in favor of going on strike, view it differently. High turnover and the loss of one nurse who died from COVID means that “we have even less staff now than we had in March and April,” emergency room nurse Shalon Matthews told Labor Notes. “The bottom line is we need more staffing, and we need it before everything starts to get bad, before it gets more dangerous for staff and for the patients.”

“We haven’t had a contract for two years,” said nurse Kathy Santoiemma, who has worked at the hospital for 43 years. “The basic ask that we have is for staffing.”

Montefiore New Rochelle Executive Director Anthony Alfano sent a letter to nurses Oct. 26 claiming the hospital has been facing “significant financial challenges” for years and has lost more than $50 million in the last few months — not counting government subsidies.

But the nurses note that Montefiore reported $29.1 million in profits during the first nine months of 2020 and received $768.3 million in federal stimulus funds. In addition it recently announced a $272 million expansion of its White Plains hospital and finalized its purchase of St. John’s Hospital in nearby Yonkers.

‘Two worlds’

Montefiore bosses operate a large network of hospitals, specialty facilities, clinics and a medical school in the Bronx and New York City suburbs in Westchester County and the Hudson Valley. Some of these areas are largely working class, and others much more prosperous.

The New Rochelle hospital “is not in a very affluent area,” said Santoiemma. “Our patients are mainly Medicare, Medicaid patients.” That’s why the company has millions to spend on other locations, but doesn’t want to shell out in New Rochelle, she said. “Our patients deserve the same care that everybody else deserves.”

Sheridan-Gonzalez notes that this is not unique to New Rochelle. When she compares where she works to more affluent hospitals, she told the Financial Times, she is reminded of the Matt Damon movie “Elysium.” “It’s like you see the rich people in the sky and the poor people in the ground,” she said. “It’s two worlds.”

While Montefiore bosses have refused for over two years to reach a new contract at New Rochelle, nurses point to the $3.4 million spent on billboards and other advertising to “thank” the staff for confronting the pandemic. During the strike, Montefiore sent a bus painted like a mobile billboard from the ad campaign to circle the picket line, what one nurse called “rubbing salt in the wound.” The bus was soon stopped in its tracks by pickets. Nurses have launched a countercampaign with stickers that say, “Nurses Over Billboards.”

When the walkout ended Montefiore locked out 35 of the striking nurses, and didn’t bring all the strikers back until Dec. 12.