Taken from Tap Into Westfield
By Andrea Crowley-Hughes
August 12, 2022
Nurses working at Cornerstone Behavioral Health Hospital in Berkeley Heights came to Thursday’s commissioner board meeting dressed in the protective gear they wear while caring for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic to seek help in securing fair wages and benefits in their next union contract.
Those who spoke are employed by the county and perform their duties at the facility which was formerly known as Runnells Specialized Hospital. While the county sold the facility in 2014, it leased back the hospital’s 44-bed psychiatric unit from an affiliate of Center Management Group for up to 10 years.
“Nurses are built for endurance, but this has been like no other time in history,” said Wendi Esteves, a registered nurse who is president of HPAE Local 5112, a union representing nurses and other frontline health care workers. “Just driving to and from work was surreal, your mind focusing not only on the task ahead but remembering you could be the vector that brings COVID to your patients or the reverse, back to your home and your family.”
Esteves said nurses had to take on the roles that are usually handled by housekeeping, maintenance and dietary employees, and they did so in personal protective equipment that was “not enough or even substandard.”
Fellow registered nurse Valerie Hamer, who is the grievance chair for the local union, said not having adequate equipment endangered her family member who has a compromised immune system.
“We did not have appropriate equipment at that time. Therefore, the disease could have been contracted at any time by me and carried onto my family member, who was told if they contracted the disease, they would die,” Hamer said.
Commissioners at the meeting thanked the employees for their comments but said they were unable to discuss negotiations.
“We know it’s a very difficult job, and I can say the county is committed to fair negotiations with all collective bargaining units,” Commissioner Chair Rebecca Williams said.
Commissioner Kimberly Palmieri-Mouded added, “We could never thank you enough for the hours you put in, the stress that it caused you going home at night, if you could even go home at night because I’m sure there were plenty of times you weren’t able to.”
A spokesperson for the union told TAPinto the employees are working under the terms of their former contract, which expired in December 2021. That agreement included 2% pay increases across the board increase, according to the HPAE website.
In a June update posted on the union website, Esteves wrote that the collective bargaining unit “cannot accept the County’s off (a mere 2% across the board and a step movement if eligible) after working through a 2 + year pandemic with little to no protection equipment or any additional compensation for putting our lives as well as the lives of our families at risk.”
HPAE Local 5112 is “holding out for language to protect [its] members in the event the County decides to sell the Hospital yet again” and seeking a freeze in healthcare premiums at their current rate and incentives to address staffing challenges during prime time holidays, Esteves wrote.
At the meeting, Esteves said more than seven nurses have left and have only been replaced with one full-time and three part-time nurses.
“It is important that if the county should happen to sell this facility, that our jobs here remain union jobs,” Elaine Blake, a registered nurse who has worked at the facility for 18 years and serves as the union’s secretary-treasurer, told TAPinto on Friday. “If I could talk to the commissioners, I would want to impress upon them that it is their responsibility to protect strong union jobs in the county. Don’t call us heroes and then throw us to the wolves.”