Samaritan nurses picket outside hospital, demanding more staff and better contracts

Feb. 2—WATERTOWN — In bitter cold and blowing snow Thursday, Samaritan Medical Center nurses, local labor leaders, union members and residents marched outside the hospital, demanding that the hospital do more to retain quality nurses.

Shouting above the honking of passing cars, dozens of nurses marched on the sidewalk of Washington Street, raising signs demanding safe staffing levels, a competitive contract and more respect for the nurses who care for Samaritan Medical Center's patients.

"Come on Mr. Carman, get it together, because your nurses have had it with the way you run this hospital," said Robin Monroe, a nurse at the hospital and member of the nursing union, referencing Samaritan's president and CEO Thomas H. Carman.

The nurses and their union argue that the hospital is understaffed because nursing compensation, especially benefits like health insurance, has been low for years. Corey Ellis, the upstate political director for the New York State Nurses Association, which represents about 360 nurses at Samaritan Medical Center, said the issue is about more than just money.

"I don't think the hospital understands, the most important piece about why nurses are leaving the bedside," he said. "It's about respect, how you communicate with your nurses. They've been underpaid and understaffed for years, and they've gotten to the point where they can't take it anymore, and the hospital is not listening."

Samaritan officials said they recognize there is a shortage of nurses in their facility, a trend that can be seen at hospitals across the nation. Leslie M. DiStefano, spokesperson for the hospital, said there are 70 vacant nursing positions.

Jennifer K. Anderson, a registered nurse who has worked for Samaritan for 25 years, said a lack of nurses leads to a lower quality of care. While the essentials will get done, Ms. Anderson said the extra "TLC," like daily bedsheet changing, daily hygiene care for the patients who need it, and other small daily care tasks have to be skipped because one nurse can be responsible for so many patients in a shift.

"You might miss things, because you can't spend as much time with the patient as you used to," she said.

Stephanie E. Bucker, a seven-year staff nurse, said the staff shortage is the worst she's ever seen, and it's taken a toll on her and on her patients.

"This is a critical issue, we need to fix it," she said. "This is where I was born, at this hospital, and I want to be able to have that pride in working here that I should be able to feel."

But Samaritan officials said the hospital is facing the same recruitment and retention problems as other facilities, and they're doing what they can to keep nurses and other staff at Samaritan, including introducing some new programs to employ recent nursing graduates and students. Ms. DiStefano said Samaritan hired 77 nurses in 2022.

"It's certainly not enough to cover everything we're looking to hire, but I think the problem is just not as simple as hiring, this is an issue across the country," she said.

Ms. DiStefano said Samaritan has made adjustments to nursing and other staff salaries over the last two years, including a 14% wage hike for all nurses in 2021.

"In 2021, we reported that the average Samaritan nurse made $82,500, and in 2022 the average Samaritan nurse made $90,000, so there was an increase there," she said.

She said hospital administration goes to great lengths to make sure nurses are being paid market-competitive wages. The most recent round of the ongoing contract negotiations between management and NYSNA found that Samaritan pays slightly above market rate for a hospital of their size in this region.

Mr. Ellis said that many hospitals have unbalanced wage scales, with executives at the top being paid millions while nurses and support staff earn tens of thousands of dollars. He suggested that hospitals struggling with staffing issues should cut their executive salaries and put that money into hiring a foundational level of staff.

Ms. DiStefano said Mr. Carman's base salary for 2021 was $666,400, and all hospital executive salaries are set by the governing board, which employs a firm that helps them research exactly what the market rate for executive salaries is, and what Samaritan's compensation scale should be.

Mr. Ellis also said that many nurses have left hospital work for travel nurse agencies, which tend to offer higher wages and better benefits and send nurses on short- to medium-term assignments at hospitals that need staff urgently. Ms. DiStefano said Samaritan does use travel nurses, but does not take into consideration the fees they pay for travel nurses when setting staff nurse compensation levels. Ms. DiStefano said those rates vary widely, and are based on competition for travel nurses among hospitals.

"We have over 50 traveling nurses or agency staff throughout the system, and it is extremely expensive and not ideal, but it's absolutely necessary to provide patient care," Ms. DiStefano said.

She said most of those travel nurses are employed in specialty care areas like the emergency room, the intensive care unit or surgical services.

Ms. DiStefano said Samaritan is working to bring in more nursing staff and to negotiate a fair contract with the nurses union, and said staffing the hospital with a safe number of employees is important to them.

"100% of the hospitals that participated in a recent survey from the Health Care Association of New York State reported that they have a nursing shortage they cannot fill, so Samaritan is not alone in this," she said.