In union fight, Albany Med nurses seek higher pay, benefits and respect
Their last try was 15 years ago.
It was 2003, and the nurses at Albany Medical Center who had hoped to form a union were feeling dejected. They had just lost their third attempt at unionizing, this time by 253 votes. On the previous try, in 2001, they lost by 237 votes. In 2000, they lost by a single vote.
Three tries in four years? That must be that, they thought. And they put their heads down and got back to work.
More than a decade later, their numbers have grown. Where once there were 1,200 voting-eligible nurses at the Capital Region's most comprehensive hospital, now there are 2,200. Where once unionized nurses were a relative rarity in New York, now they seem to be everywhere. Nurses have organized in Schenectady and Gloversville, the North Country and the Hudson Valley, and they seem to be enjoying higher pay and better benefits as a result.
And so it is that the nurses at Albany Medical Center feel their time has come again. On Thursday and Friday, after a nearly three-year organizing effort, they will vote again on whether to join a union. This time, they're seeking representation with the New York State Nurses Association, the state's largest nursing union representing 40,000 members.
"With everything I've seen and been through over the years, I believe it's going to happen this time," said Patty Pinho, a nurse of 35 years with Albany Medical Center.
"I'm feeling the same," said Karen Nieto, a 38-year Albany Med veteran who cares for premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Nieto voted no the last time around. Despite her husband's and father's pro-union stances, she had always had her doubts about unions. But as nurses continued to bring the same concerns to management -- as their duties became more computerized and less patient-centered, as her colleagues started fleeing for higher-paying jobs -- her feelings changed.
"Everybody is pro-union now," she said. "And we're not being pushed into it: This is what we want to do. This is what we want to see happen, and everybody has this feeling like it's finally going to happen."
Perhaps -- but the renewed organizing effort hasn't been without controversy.
A dirty fight
As the election has neared, tensions at the hospital have grown. Nurses report getting daily emails from administrators discouraging them from voting yes. The emergence of "Vote yes," "Vote no" and "NYSNA" buttons has provoked what's been characterized as bullying on all sides. Pro-union flyers have been torn from bulletin boards. Red scrubs -- the NYSNA color -- have been confiscated. Already scheduled raises and vacation time have been threatened.
Additionally, managers are pulling nurses aside for one-on-one meetings to question them about their intended vote, according to interviews with nearly a dozen nurses. Some have left those meetings crying. Others have been confronted in the parking lot. Meanwhile, the sudden emergence of rarely seen managers orbiting nurses' stations has nurses on edge.
Filipino nurses who are in Albany on work visas were warned that unionizing could jeopardize their immigration status, according to one complaint that was filed with the state.
Albany Med has recruited trained nurses from the Philippines for more than 15 years. On Tuesday, they received a letter from one of those recruiters, longtime Albany Med nurse Lynne Longtin -- whose title is "director of clinical quality and nursing research" -- expressing disappointment that they would consider unionizing after being able to come to the U.S. and "fulfill the American dream."
"Do you want to pay dues every year rather than send your hard-earned dollars home to the Philippines?" she wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Times Union.
"The legacy of the Philippine RN at AMC, it is in your hands," Longtin wrote. "Will it be the well-educated, excellent, compassionate RNs that helped to raise the bar at AMC or the Philippine nurse that helped bring AMC a nursing union and helped to create mediocrity???"
Reports from the union drive caught the attention of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who on March 29 ordered the state Labor Department to investigate complaints of intimidation, threats and coercion by hospital administration ahead of the election.
It prompted a strong reaction from Albany Med CEO James Barba, who in a memo to staff the next day accused the union of spreading false allegations and said it was "pro-Albany Med employees" who had been subjected to bullying.
"Frankly, the bullying by the labor union supporters demonstrates exactly why a union at Albany Med is a bad idea," Barba wrote.
A letter sent to Barba on Thursday from the state Public Employee Conference -- signed by dozens of its member unions -- gave a sense of just how heated the rhetoric has become: "Your facility's reputation as the premier medical center in the Capital Region will be irreparably harmed when the public is made aware of the fact that your nursing staff is treated like human chattel," it stated in reference to reports of "veiled threats" and other forms of intimidation.
The letter closed by admonishing Barba to "Put your anti-labor agenda aside, and let your nurses be represented by professionals, so they can concentrate on being professionals!"
Nurses want a union for many reasons. At the forefront, they say, is a feeling that they are simply not valued.
"I am expendable to them," said Wendy, a nurse who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. "They don't value me, and I should be valued."
Turnover also seems to be on the rise, nurses said. Nurses come to Albany Med and stay for a few years, and then leave for higher-paying positions elsewhere. While pay rates vary according to years of experience, nurses interviewed for this story said Albany Med's salaries were lower than those at comparable upstate hospitals.
"The result is we have new nurses training new nurses," said Lisa Eberhart, who has been at Albany Med for two and a half years. "I wasn't even a nurse for barely a year, and they already had me training another nurse. I don't really think that breeds the kind of safe, quality care our community deserves."
Health and retirement benefits aren't great, nurses said, while promotions, raises and scheduling requests appear to be granted based on whims and favoritism.
Staffing levels are sufficient in some units, but not in others, they said. And shifts are increasingly eaten up by computer and data entry responsibilities, leaving nurses less time with patients.
Unionizing could give the nurses a greater voice around these issues, they said.
But joining a union also has its drawbacks, hospital administrators have warned. In emails and fliers, they accused the union of feeding nurses half-truths and misinformation, highlighting successes downstate or up north while remaining silent about less successful bargaining at nearby Ellis Hospital.
Unionizing, they said, will result in a lack of flexible scheduling for nurses who may need to swap shifts at the last minute for family or school obligations.
"Albany Med provides the highest quality of care in the region because we attract and retain the most highly qualified and talented nurses and staff from throughout the region and from around the world," the hospital said in a statement to the Times Union. "Our pay and benefits are competitive, and our care environment is designed to allow our staff to maintain their focus on where it belongs -- our patients and their families. We look forward to maintaining an open dialogue with our nurses on how to best provide care in the health care environment now and in the future."
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