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NYS Nurses Association Rallies for Patient Care


Utica nurses care for our community

Summer in Utica has been heating up, with nurses from St. Elizabeth Medical Center speaking out for safe patient care. At the end of June, nurses picketed in front of the hospital to demand more staff, reopened units, and a fair contract. They drew attention to the impact of MVHS’ cuts on the community and called out racism as a public health crisis.

Some cuts don’t heal

In late April, Mohawk Valley Health System (MVHS) laid off 78 nurses at St. Elizabeth Medical Center and furloughed approximately 800 other essential workers, creating a staffing crisis and leaving the Utica community more vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since then, all but five of the laid off nurses have returned to work. Unfortunately, many of the furloughed staff, who are vital parts of the healthcare team, have not returned, even as the number of COVID-19 cases in the Mohawk Valley has held steady, instead of dropping like in other regions of the state.

NYSNA nurse Lily Werenczek, RN said: “We brought back almost all of the nurses, which was a huge win, but we need the whole healthcare team to deliver quality care. Nurses are advocating for more hospital staff, like techs, nursing assistants, and cleaners to be brought back from furlough. We are still stretched too thin. We are in solidarity with all the ancillary staff—who are essential, but who are too often treated as expendable.”

Members of the New York State Nurses Association hold a protest rally outside St. Elizabeth Hospital Monday June 29, 2020 in Utica, N.Y. (Photo/Hans Pennink)

Although the nurses have returned, there is still a hiring freeze in effect and not enough other staff to make the hospital run smoothly. Nurses are reporting understaffing that poses a threat to nurse and patient safety, closed units that are critical for providing care to the community, and a concerning lack of safety protocols to mitigate the COVID-19 crisis.


Staffing cuts reverberate


The furloughs and hiring freeze have reverberated throughout the hospital. For example, the pharmacy department is operating with fewer pharmacists and pharmacy technicians. Nurse staffing shortages have also put more pressure on the pharmacy techs, as there are fewer nurses on the floor to come to the pharmacy department to get medications in between normal delivery times.


“There are days when I spend all my time running back and forth and that leaves me with no time to work on my other job requirements, such as putting together crash cart trays,” explained Rachel McMahon, a pharmacy technician at St. Elizabeth’s. “My concern for all departments is patient care. I always think about all patients as if that was myself or my loved one. I would not want medication therapy to be delayed due to the unavailability of staff to get the medication there in a timely manner.”


Caring for patients here and now

MVHS has justified the staffing cuts as necessary short-term cost savings to help pay for the new downtown hospital, which is years away from opening. Nurses are calling for MVHS to prioritize care for patients here and now.


MVHS has received several rounds of federal funding intended to offset hospital losses due to COVID-19. In May, it received $4.1 million in Cares Act funding, followed by a June payment of $14.8 million for safety-net hospitals. Instead of using federal funding to prevent staffing cuts or bring back more staff, MVHS prioritized making bond payments on the new hospital building. Most recently, Faxton St. Luke’s received $6.55 million in high-impact funding, set aside for hospitals that are dealing with a high volume of COVID patients.


New Yorkers are already footing part of the bill for the new hospital. MVHS was awarded large bonds for construction, including a $292 Million tax-exempt bond which will deprive Oneida County of tax revenue that could be used on services that all residents need. Nurses question how a hospital system that has gotten so much from the community could turn its back on us now.


Picket for patient care

Nurses picketed at St. Elizabeth’s in late June to demand that MVHS put patients first. They were joined on the picket line by other hospital staff, union members and community members. Bringing back the furloughed staff was a major demand.


They are making demands at the bargaining table, as well, where the MVHS Administration is proposing givebacks that will make providing quality care to patients and retaining nurses even more difficult. Nurses will return to the bargaining table in August.


Racism is a public health crisis 


Nurses at the picket also drew attention to the need to protect and value Black lives. Protests throughout the U.S. after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked unprecedented support for the Black Lives Matter movement and resulted in policy changes in New York State that increase transparency and accountability in policing.


While speaking out against racism and police brutality, nurses across New York have also called attention to broader issues of racial justice. From access to healthcare, to treatment, to hospital funding, to health outcomes, there remain wide racial disparities in our healthcare system. The “pre-existing conditions” of poor access to healthcare, poor health and income inequality created a perfect storm for the COVID-19 pandemic to devastate the Black community. African Americans were infected at three times the rate of Whites and died at 2.5 times the rate of Whites. While some have said that the Coronavirus does not discriminate, it’s more accurate to say that discrimination kills.


Racial justice and economic justice are connected


African American community members have also felt the impact of the economic crisis more deeply. African American workers are more likely to be unemployed or employed in low-wage jobs. Essential workers who continued to work during the COVID-19 pandemic and risk greater exposure to themselves and their loved ones were disproportionately Black and Latinx. A recent study from the National Employment Law Project showed that Black workers were twice as likely to be retaliated against for bringing up health and safety issues in their workplace during the pandemic.


The lowest-paid workers at St. Elizabeth Medical Center are disproportionately represented by people of color. The furloughs had a tremendous impact on them and their families.  They are so essential to the care of the patients, yet barely earn a living wage. The inadequate insurance that MVHS offers saddles them with copays that are far beyond their budgets.


In late June, a spike in COVID-19 cases in Oneida County came primarily from the workers at two businesses: the Keymark Corp. aluminum plant in Fonda, and the Champlain Valley Specialty of NY apple packaging plant in Oswego County. When the County finally released COVID data by race, it showed that 58.6% of COVID cases were found in White people. White people comprise 86% of the population in Oneida County, confirming the trend that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts people of color everywhere, including in predominantly white areas of Upstate New York.


Proud to care


As the safety net hospital for the Mohawk Valley, St. Elizabeth’s cares for a large number of low-income and uninsured patients. Nurses are proud of their role caring for the Utica community and caring for all New Yorkers, regardless of race, religion, immigration status, insurance status—simply regardless.


There is growing concern about how the triple crisis of the economy, racism, and COVID-19 will impact the Utica community and beyond. The pandemic has shown that there is no economic justice without racial justice. Nurses believe that to heal our community, we need fair funding for our safety net hospitals, we need enough staff to safely care for our patients, and we need everyone—patients and workers—to be treated with dignity and respect.

NYSNA nurse Amelia Handzel, RN, said: “The low paid invisible workers turned out to be essential, yet they have the least access to healthcare. COVID-19 has laid bare the unethical nature of the business model of healthcare. These businesses that are too big to fail have, in fact, failed so much of the population while continuing to profit. When health is tied to socioeconomic status, which is tied to race, the result is inevitable. It’s time for a change.”



Photos: By Eamon Handzel


Racism is a public health crisis https://www.dropbox.com/s/ce6dqptf85lpec1/RacismIsAPublicHealthCrisis.jpg?dl=0


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