Pandemic safety the top priority as NJ health care workers' unions enter contract talks - Health Professionals & Allied Employees

Pandemic safety the top priority as NJ health care workers’ unions enter contract talks

Taken from

Lindy Washburn,

April 12, 2021

The COVID pandemic has made safety a top bargaining issue for health care workers as unions representing thousands of employees at New Jersey’s hospitals, home care agencies and nursing homes head to the bargaining table this year.

Nurses, nursing assistants, housekeepers and technical health workers are asking through their unions for a bigger role in crafting their employers’ plans and preparation for ongoing waves of the COVID pandemic so they can be assured of proper personal protective equipment and notified of employee outbreaks. They also want better quarantine and hazard pay.

Negotiations are underway or will start soon for 11 locals representing 6,000 members of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees union; two locals of JNESO, a hospital and clinical workers’ union; and about 4,000 nursing home employees represented by 1199SEIU-United Healthcare Workers East.

Union leaders also say employees of hospitals and nursing homes without unions have expressed “a lot of interest” in labor representation and help with workplace safety concerns. Fewer than half of the state’s hospitals and about half of its nursing homes have employee unions.

Health care workers suffer consequences of ‘unsafe work environments’

The groundswell of public appreciation has put front-line health workers “in a strong position” when it comes to negotiations this year, said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “But, as always, health care employees will fight.

“Health care workers were put in unsafe work environments,” she said. “Many got sick and some died. Having a workplace where you have a voice has become a really clear priority.”

While the specific issues vary, this year’s contract negotiations occur against the backdrop of an ongoing pandemic that has killed more than 3,300 health care workers nationwide, including more than 250 in New Jersey, and sickened thousands more.

Many who worked on the front lines have yet to fully recover from the physical, mental and emotional toll of the pandemic at health care institutions, union leaders said. Some have become COVID long-haulers, suffering such long-term consequences as shortness of breath, loss of smell and taste, brain fog and anxiety.

Executives note revenue losses, don’t dismiss issues

Hospital and nursing home executives, for their part, note that the pandemic caused steep downturns in revenue.

Many nursing homes are at risk of closure, their national association says, because of higher expenses and fewer admissions. Emergency room visits dropped 27% and outpatient visits to hospitals in New Jersey dropped by 20% from 2019 to 2020, while expenses increased 10%, according to 3rd quarter data from the New Jersey Hospital Association.

Federal relief funds “[have] not erased the financial strain as hospitals continue to care for patients and play a leading role in vaccinating their staffs and communities,” a February report from the hospital association said.

Nevertheless, “We can’t simply afford to move on from here,” said Debbie White, president of the 11,000-member HPAE. “We have to take those lessons learned from the pandemic… so as not to repeat those mistakes in the future.”

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