Nurses Reach Tentative Deal With Cooper Hospital, But Strike Still Possible - Health Professionals & Allied Employees

Nurses Reach Tentative Deal With Cooper Hospital, But Strike Still Possible

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By Josh Bakan

June 3, 2024

Cooper University Health Care reached a tentative deal with its nursing union, just before their contract was set to expire. But a strike remains possible for Cooper’s 1,500 nurses.

HPAE Local 5118 — the union chapter representing Cooper’s nurses — was set to go on strike if their contract expired by the end of Friday with no deal in place. The hospital’s nurses were pushing to boost nurse-to-patient ratios in their new employee contracts.

Cooper reached a tentative agreement with its nurses on Friday — hours before their contract expired. Union members will vote this week on whether to accept the agreement, which would ratify a new contract. But if members reject the deal and Cooper refuses to negotiate further, “a strike is imminent,” according to HPAE Local 5118.

For years, Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE) has been sounding the alarm on a “staffing crisis” in nursing, which worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The nurses at Cooper were among three HPAE chapters with contracts set to expire at the end of Friday. All three labor groups have pushed for “fair” wage increase and “safe” staffing levels, voting to go on strike if no deal was reached with their respective hospitals, according to HPAE President Debbie White. Although a vote is still looming among Cooper’s nurses, HPAE leadership was pleased with the tentative agreement.

“Nurses and healthcare workers have clear priorities in these negotiations,” White said. “The tentative agreement reached between HPAE Local 5118 and Cooper has significant improvements in enforceable staffing ratios.”

Under the tentative agreement, many of Cooper University Hospital’s departments would need to staff one nurse for every four to five patients. Adult critical care would have a nurse-to-patient ratio of 1-to-2. Department-specific ratios remain under review.

The tentative deal also adjusts wage increases, according to HPAE Local 5118. But the detailed agreement will not be released until the members vote to ratify the contract.

Cooper’s nursing contracts have had staffing guidelines for more than two decades, according to the health system.

“We are pleased to have reached a tentative agreement with HPAE,” said Kathy Devine, Cooper’s chief nursing executive. “This agreement demonstrates our commitment to Cooper’s nurses as well as to patient safety.”

Englewood Hospital’s nurses also ended Friday with a tentative agreement. But workers at Hackensack Meridian Health Palisades entered the weekend without a deal, leaving its union chapter to plan to strike.

Nurses must provide 10 days’ notice before a strike so that hospitals can find replacement staff.

An Industry Issue

The HPAE has long advocated for state legislation that would require minimum-staffing ratios at hospitals and other health care facilities. But in the absence of legal mandates, nurse’s unions have fought for enforceable staffing ratios in their contracts. Last year, nurses at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick went on strike for 120 days before reaching a tentative deal.

Bills to establish minimum-staffing requirements have remained stalled in the State Senate and Assembly, with neither measure advancing to a full vote as of yet. But White expressed optimism in the rising number of sponsors, 13 assembly members and seven state senators on board.

California and Massachusetts have laws enforcing staff ratios at hospitals. The HPAE has pointed to studies finding that California’s law lowered mortality and improved nurse retention.

HPAE is New Jersey’s largest union of registered nurses and health care professionals, representing 14,000 workers.

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