Union takes frustrations with NLH public

PHOTOGRAPHER:
A billboard on Route 29 in Vail Mills highlights the frustration of union workers at Nathan Littauer Hospital, who asked for a 60-day extension of their contract, which expired last summer, and hospital officials refused. (The Leader-Herald/Briana O’Hara)

GLOVERSVILLE — Union workers at Nathan Littauer Hospital and Nursing Home engaged in contract negotiations with Nathan Littauer for nearly a year requested a 60-day extension last month of their previous contract that expired in June 2019, saying the extension would allow staff members to focus on the public health crisis posed by the coronavirus. Union negotiators say Nathan Littauer rejected the request. In response, the union put up billboards this month to bring the public into the conversation.

Members of the 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East bargaining unit at Nathan Littauer Hospital and Nursing Home include nursing assistants, housekeeping, dietary and food service workers, orderlies, maintenance mechanics and laboratory, pharmacy, clinical and surgical technicians. As of December, approximately 346 Nathan Littauer employees were members of the 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East bargaining unit, one of two active unions within the organization.

The most recently negotiated contract for members of 1199SEIU took effect July 1, 2015 and expired on June 30, 2019. Contract negotiations began in August after the contract expired. Each negotiating side has claimed it was prepared to meet at the bargaining table earlier, faulting the other for the delayed start.

Negotiations stretched into this year and as healthcare workers began preparing for the looming coronavirus outbreak, union negotiators say they requested a 60-day extension of the expired contract to temporarily suspend bargaining and allow staff members to focus on keeping patients, the community and themselves safe and healthy.

“It would give us one less thing to worry about,” said Brittany Adams, a certified nursing assistant at Nathan Littauer Nursing Home who is on the union negotiating committee. “We want to get through this and then get back to the table.”

“As of right now, because of social distancing we are not able to continue negotiations,” Adams added. “To do it electronically, it’s very hard with our committee and their committee.”

The union says Nathan Littauer rejected the request to extend the contract. According to 1199SEIU, Nathan Littauer was the only healthcare facility in the region that did not agree to extend the contract with their institution’s union during the coronavirus outbreak. The number of facilities in active contract negotiations with union members was not specified. The 1199SEIU represents approximately 450,000 members throughout the Northeast.

Representatives of Nathan Littauer in a prepared statement said, “The union’s reference to a 60-day contract extension is a red-herring. As the union is well aware, the hospital continues to abide by the terms of the expired agreement in accordance with applicable law.”

According to union members, negotiations with Nathan Littauer have become contentious as employees seek what they describe as market rate wages and the maintenance of current benefit packages. Recruiting and retaining staff members has already become an issue, say Adams and medical technologist Deven McDougall, who believes the problem will worsen if Nathan Littauer does not agree to the union’s terms.

“Workers are going everywhere but here, because every hospital pays more than we do,” said McDougall, a union member who served on past negotiating committees. “All we want is a cost of living wage and we want to keep our insurance the way it is.”

“We’re not asking for anything crazy,” she added, describing the desired level for raises as 1 to 2 percent a year. “We just want what everybody would want from a job.”

After the hospital rejected the union’s requested 60-day contract extension, union members decided it was time to bring their concerns to the community through two billboards that were put up on Route 30 and Route 29 on April 6. A third billboard is expected to go up on Route 30A on Monday.

“We want the community to be aware there is a possible problem,” said McDougall.

The billboards ask, “Will Nathan Littauer Hospital and Nursing Home be able to recruit and retain qualified caregivers for our community?”

One of the billboards also includes a quote from laboratory technician Gerry Woodward that says, “The last thing I want to do is leave my job as a healthcare worker, but I can earn more money at any fast food restaurant.”

Both Adams and McDougall agreed that qualified workers in their fields from Nathan Littauer could earn more in the retail or fast food industries.

“I really like coming to work, but in the past year it’s been a little more difficult,” said Adams. “I feel like instead of it being us all working together, it’s turned into us versus them. It shouldn’t have to be that way; our goal is the same here. We want to do the best we can for the people we’re taking care of and then we want to go home and do the best we can for our families as well. We want to be able to pay our bills without having boatloads of overtime.”

According to Adams, a shortage of CNAs at the nursing home has led to consistent mandatory overtime that often scares away potential new recruits.

“We had a girl leave in her first week of orientation,” said Adams. “She was watching the amount of mandates people are receiving and she realized she could not handle it.”

With overtime, Adams typically works 50 to 60 hours a week at the nursing home where she said union nurses often work together to plan coverage of mandated overtime by splitting eight, second shift hours between a first and a third shift worker and other variations.

Adams pointed to mandated overtime as posing a particular problem to parents trying to organize child care, especially amid ongoing school and business closures related to the coronavirus.

“Getting ready to walk out the door and having a supervisor say I need you to stay another eight hours, that’s difficult,” said Adams.

If staff refuse to work the extra hours, Adams said they may face threats of suspension or termination. She also raised concerns that long hours could cause over-tired staff members to make mistakes and noted that patients at the nursing home with Alzheimer’s or dementia benefit from consistency that cannot be maintained with staff members shuffling around to cover shifts.

In the hospital laboratory, McDougall said fewer people entering the fields of medical technology and phlebotomy has already made it more difficult for facilities to recruit workers. Now she said mandated overtime at Nathan Littauer has made it harder to fill positions among the technologists who test blood and phlebotomists who draw blood. If a phlebotomist is unavailable, she said technologists may be required to cover both positions.

“Why pay us overtime to do that, why not pay us enough to have enough people,” asked McDougall.

McDougall also raised concerns that staffing shortages could cause delays and long hours could lead to mistakes that put people’s lives and workers’ licenses at risk.

“This is what the doctor bases their treatment on. It’s very important. If we screw up, they could hurt the patient by giving them the wrong thing,” said McDougall. “We’re just asking for enough help and to pay people the right amount, so people will come and work with us.”

Both Adams and McDougall pointed to the importance of the hospital to them personally as members of the community whose families are from the area originally, saying the billboards are meant to ensure other community members are aware of the issues going on in their hospital.

“I need this hospital and everyone else does too,” said McDougall.

Nathan Littauer Hospital and Nursing Home in a prepared statement said that over the course of more than 12 bargaining sessions up to this point the hospital has “made fair wage and benefit proposals which the union has thus far rejected.”

The statement goes on to say that due to a lack of progress, the hospital has repeatedly asked the union to allow federal mediators to attend negotiations and provide assistance in reaching an agreement.

“The union has flatly refused,” the statement reads. “We are disappointed that during this national health crisis, the 1199SEIU union would try to distract from where our focus should be. Nathan Littauer Hospital staff heroically care for our residents and patients, day in and day out and our focus is on ensuring they can continue to safely do so.”

By Patricia Older

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