Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) has thrown his support behind nearly 2,000 nurses in New Jersey who are entering their fourth week on strike, demanding that hospital executives give the nurses a fair contract.
Nurses at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) in New Brunswick went on strike on August 4, protesting low staffing levels, which they say put both themselves and their patients in danger, as well as what they say are insufficient benefits and pay.
Sanders sent a letter this week to RWJ Barnabas Health (RWJBH) president and CEO Mark E. Manigan urging hospital management to return to the bargaining table and alleviate the “unconscionable” conditions that the workers face.
“RWJUH nurses report reduced staffing to the point that nurses across the hospital are now caring for unsafe numbers of patients,” Sanders wrote. “Rather than agreeing to safe staffing ratios, the hospital’s most recent offer instead effectively penalizes nurses for using the sick time to which they are legally entitled. That is simply unacceptable.”
Staffing ratios are a major issue driving the strike, with nurses reporting that they often don’t have time to eat a meal or use the restroom during a shift because they must run between patients to address emergency after emergency. During a typical 12-hour shift, nurses say they’re caring for six patients — and due to the RWJUH’s status as a level one trauma center, they are seeing some of the most critically ill patients in the region.
COVID-19 was a key turning point for staffing levels, workers say, with their responsibilities increasing precipitously during the pandemic and never letting up since. According to NJ Spotlight News, the hospital has only hired 150 new nurses since last year. Meanwhile, hospital management has brought on replacement nurses at similar staffing ratios to what nurses have been demanding.
“I recall one shift that reflects what an average day looks like for a bedside nurse: I have a six-patient assignment, again,” wrote striking operating room nurse Kelsey Khan for Labor Notes this week.
“During this 12-hour shift, I did not have a moment to eat, use the restroom, or complete any charting. We do not have extra help because every other nurse and tech is inundated with their own assignments,” Khan continued. “This was the norm, every day, without fail. After one year, I could not take it anymore and left the bedside, transferring to work in the operating room instead. We need help. Something must change.”
Negotiations have been ongoing since April, with their last contract expiring in June; the first contract proposal was rejected by 96 percent of members. Similarly, in July, the union voted to go on strike with 96 percent approval.
“It is absurd for RWJBH to claim it can afford to pay its executives millions, yet is somehow unable to provide its nurses fair raises. Instead of negotiating in good faith, the hospital offered a $1 an hour raise for on-call shifts only, which, after adjusting for inflation, would amount to a significant pay cut,” Sanders wrote. “It is also unconscionable that, while working long hours to provide quality health care, RWJBH nurses are not guaranteed that same quality health care…. Instead, the hospital continues to see nurses’ health costs as another means to profit.”
“Let’s be clear: if RWJBH can afford to hire these replacement nurses and pay their executives millions each year, they can afford a contract that keeps nurses safe and provides living wages and good benefits,” Sanders concluded. “These workers have been on the frontlines in our fight against COVID-19 and have risked their lives to save patients under challenging conditions. They deserve better.”