Nurses testify that N.J. hospital is unsafe due to understaffing - Health Professionals & Allied Employees

Nurses testify that N.J. hospital is unsafe due to understaffing

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By Spencer Kent

October 27, 2023

Before a sea of people in a packed auditorium, a group of New Jersey nurses gave a sobering warning.

The health care workers testified Friday morning that Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital is increasingly unsafe because of insufficient staffing as they sat across from Sen. Bernie Sanders during a U.S. Senate committee hearing.

“Nurses have been afraid to talk about this to the general public because we don’t want to alarm anybody that it’s scary in the hospital,” said Carol Tanzi, a registered nurse at RWJUH and a member of the panel. “We don’t want to raise fears for people that they might not be taken care of properly.”

But Tanzi said, “Things that need to be done are not getting done.”

The five-person panel shared why the 1,700 nurses at the New Brunswick hospital went on strike in early August and what they say they’ve been fighting for over the past three months.

The hearing — held at the Nicholas Music Center at Rutgers University in New Brunswick — was organized by Sanders, who chairs the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. The crowd erupted in applause as the senior senator from Vermont took the stage.

“I’ve seen the tears in their eyes,” Sanders said. “Nurses have told me that they are simply unable to provide the quality care they want to provide and the care their patients deserve.”

The independent senator had invited RWJUH nurses, experts and hospital leaders to the field hearing, but the executives declined to attend.

Two seats remained empty for Mark Manigan, president and CEO of RWJBarnabas Health, and Alan Lee, president of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. The two instead submitted written testimony, a decision that led to a war of words a day earlier between Sanders and the hospital.

“Unfortunately, Robert Wood Johnson told the media that their executives would be attending this hearing and were eager to set the record straight,” Sanders said on Friday.

In Manigan’s written testimony, he said he was “troubled by the inaccurate and misleading assertions put forth by the Chairman (Sanders) in recent public comments.”

“Unlike a significant number of health care organizations in the Northeast and around the country, RWJUH has safe staffing guidelines in place that are derived from national, evidence‐based practice by peer academic medical centers,” Manigan wrote.

The hundreds who came out — many of them nurses wearing the T-shirts of their respective unions — stood and cheered throughout the hearing as Sanders asked the panel to share their stories.

Though pay and benefits are part of the labor dispute, the RWJUH strike is mainly about obtaining nurse-to-patient ratios similar to what California law mandates, the nurses say. The hospital has resisted enforceable ratios, saying they would hinder its ability to be flexible when patient acuity is high.

Judy Danella, a registered nurse at RWJUH and president of the United Steel Workers Local 4-200, which represents the striking nurses, said she often cannot handle the number of patients she’s been assigned.

“I want to help them, but sometimes I can’t because I might have a cluster (of patients), but I have to go off the floor because my patient needs a stat CAT scan, and there’s nobody to watch my other patients,” she said.

Since the strike began, the hospital has hired replacement agency nurses at premium costs.

“I would have asked them (Manigan and Lee) how their health care system could afford to spend over $100 million on traveling nurses … but somehow cannot afford to mandate safe staffing ratios to improve the lives of patients and nurses at the hospital,” Sanders said. “I was also very curious to know how this nonprofit hospital could find some $17 million in CEO compensation for one person in 2021.”

In his written testimony, Manigan said safe staffing guidelines were agreed to “by the USW 4‐200 negotiating committee, representing RWJUH nurses, in multiple contract settlement offers from the hospital that they failed to ratify.

“Our patients receive safe and compassionate care across all of our services, as evidenced by multiple quality indicators and national quality rankings, which reflect our unwavering commitment to the communities we serve.”

In Lee’s written testimony, he said, “We cannot risk anything taken out of context in this hearing that might hinder our ability to reach an agreement to bring our nurses back inside so that they can resume their noble profession and support themselves and their families. Ending this strike is paramount.”

Debbie White, president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees — the state’s largest nurses union — testified that she thought it was shameful the hospital was touting the amount of money it was spending on agency nurses.

“This employer should be embarrassed to tell the public what they spend on replacement costs,” she said. “They should be ashamed.”

The panel also included Nancy Hagans, a registered nurse and president of National Nurses United and the New York State Nurses Association, as well as Dr. Patricia Pittman, Fitzhugh Mullan professor of Health Workforce Equity and director of the Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity at George Washington University.

Pittman said nurses suffer trauma from being overworked.

“Nurses commit suicide at twice the rate of the general population,” she said.

Tanzi spoke about the anguish RWJUH nurses have felt every day due to short staffing levels.

“You always had that feeling. It starts the night before your shift, where you’re just wondering what you’re going to walk into,” she said.

“It’s the juggling — the constant juggling … “ Tanzi added. “So the anguish you feel — the dread, the anxiety that this causes every single day.”

Sitting in the front row was U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-6), who said he was there to stand in solidarity with the nurses.

“We really need to have nursing staffing ratios legislation,” he said. “That’s what I support.”

Pallone spoke during a rally after the hearing, where nurses gathered outside the facility.

Like the nurses, Lee was also blunt at times in his testimony.

“Let me be clear: RWJUH did not want this strike,” he wrote. “In fact, we did everything we could to avert it. We twice accepted USW 4‐200′s demands and offered to go to binding arbitration or submit to a board of inquiry, but the union refused. We requested numerous times for union leadership to continue negotiating rather than strike.”

He added, “We make no apologies for doing everything necessary to ensure the hospital remains fully operational and our patients continue to receive the highest quality, always‐safe care.”

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