COVID pandemic working conditions spurred nurses at this NJ hospital to unionize

·4 min read

Nurses at Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville voted overwhelmingly this month to form a union, the largest organizing accomplishment among health care workers in New Jersey since the COVID pandemic began early in 2020. They are the first nurses’ union at a New Jersey hospital to be part of 1199SEIU, the powerful New York-based labor group.

More than 500 registered nurses at the hospital, which is part of RWJBarnabas Health, will be represented by 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the union said. The vote of 282-to-84 was counted Wednesday by the National Labor Relations Board.

Until now, 1199SEIU has primarily represented long-term care workers in New Jersey. With about 16,000 members statewide, it won significant legislative reforms targeting nursing homes in the aftermath of the pandemic, including the first staff-to-resident ratios for long-term care.

The much larger New York branch of 1199SEIU is a political force, with 250,000 members at some of that state’s largest hospital systems, including Mount Sinai Health System, New York-Presbyterian, NYU Langone Health, Montefiore Health System and Northwell Health, in addition to members who work at nursing homes.

At Clara Maass, front-line workers were hit hard during the pandemic. Three employees died of COVID-19: Barbara Birchenough, 65, a nurse who died within days of her planned retirement in April 2020; Nestor Bautista, 62, a nurses' aide who worked with Birchenough and also became infected; and John Lara, an emergency room technician.

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The hospital, along with many other New Jersey health care institutions, was fined by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for failing to provide enough equipment and other protections to health care workers who fell sick and died during the pandemic.

Nurses who led the organizing effort said they hoped contract negotiations would lead to equality with other RWJBarnabas facilities in salary and improved working conditions, as well as lower patient-to-nurse ratios so that they can provide better care to their patients.

In response, Dr. Mary Ellen Clyne, the hospital’s president and CEO, said: “We acknowledge and respect the right of our nursing staff to decide on whether or not union representation is in their best long- and short-term interest."

Mary Ellen Clyne, President and Chief Executive Officer of Clara Maass Medical Center
Mary Ellen Clyne, President and Chief Executive Officer of Clara Maass Medical Center

“We will do everything we can to continue to make the hospital the best possible workplace it can be,” Clyne said. “Working together, collegially with all of our health care professionals, we will continue to advance our health care mission across our community.”

Lauded as heroes during the pandemic, nurses' unions have had mixed results in negotiations with New Jersey hospitals this year. In several institutions, they are working without contracts as negotiations continue. At Bergen New Bridge Medical Center, a new three-year contract was signed this summer.

Nurses at several other RWJBarnabas hospitals are unionized, including those at the flagship Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston.

Leaders of the new Clara Maass union said working conditions during the pandemic had galvanized the nurses to take action.

“All the things that were wrong before COVID — a spotlight shown on it,” said Tanya Howard, a nurse at the hospital for 24 years. “It was blatant. We begged and begged and begged for help.” Many nurses left for higher pay as travel nurses, she said.

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As their colleagues fell sick with COVID, nurses said they felt unsupported by hospital executives and managers.

Barbara Villanueva, an 18-year nurse at Clara Maass, and John Galiger, a nurse there for seven years, became emotional as they talked about how they cared for Barbara Birchenough, their colleague, in the intensive care unit as she died of COVID.

“At the end of the day, this is my community,” said Villanueva. “I live in this community; I want better for this community hospital. … I know I could do better, but I don’t have the ability to do it because I’m not given the tools.”

“I think Barbara would be proud of us,” she said.

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: COVID working conditions led these NJ hospital nurses to unionize