ALBANY -- Hundreds of nurses and their supporters rallied outside of Albany Medical Center on Labor Day, demanding the hospital approve the first labor contract for its nurses union.
In 2018, 1,161 of the hospital's approximately 2,000 nurses voted to join the New York State Nurses Association, but the hospital has never agreed to a union contract with the nurses.
The nurses at Monday's rally made it clear they intend to strike within 10 days if the hospital doesn't agree to a labor contract.
Jen Bejo, a registered nurse and nurse leader at Albany Med, spoke at the rally. A hospital employee for 14 years, she said that throughout the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic she and her fellow nurses were often praised in public by the hospital's administration, but stonewalled behind closed doors when it came to contract negotiations
She said the nurses union at Albany Med overwhelmingly have voted to authorize a strike.
"I'm standing with our negotiating committee that has been working hard for over two years to bring our first contract at Albany Med," she said to the crowd.
"They called us heroes during COVID, but treated us like zeros. They cut our hours. They unlawfully cut our personal time. They've canceled our annual wage increase. They refused to listen to us about [personal protective equipment], and health and safety issues."
Bejo said other local hospitals like Ellis in Schenectady have recently settled contracts, but Albany Med won't do the same. She also criticized Albany Med President Dennis McKenna for the lack of progress.
In March, during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in New York state, a reported 45 health-care workers at Albany Med were confirmed to have tested positive for COVID-19 -- a number higher than the number of coronavirus patients, 36, the hospital had at that time.
Calls seeking comment from Albany Medical Center's public relations department and social messages to McKenna on Monday were not returned or responded to for this article.
Angela Burns, a 10-year veteran at Albany Med, said the nurses want competitive wages with other local hospitals, safe staffing and better health insurance. She said nurses at Albany Med are forced to use the hospital system itself as their only in-network provider under the insurance currently offered at the hospital, resulting in months-long wait times for some types of care. She asserted that the hospital has a difficult time retaining staff, which results in dangerously low staffing in some departments of the hospital.
"I work in the NICU, the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. We care for babies starting at 23 weeks gestation — we have the sickest, youngest babies in the region, from pretty much all over the state," she said. "There have been days when I've been doing the next day's assignments, and we are 12 nurses short, begging and pleading for nurses to come in."
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, spoke at the rally supporting the nurses. He said the state Legislature should pass the Safe Staffing for Quality Care Act, a bill that has been proposed in both the state Assembly and Senate, which would mandate adequate nurse-to-patient ratios at hospitals.
"Look, the state always has a role," Santabarbara said. "I represent the Schenectady area and Ellis Hospital, but I represent nurses everywhere. If anything, this pandemic has shown us just how important nurses are to the health and safety of our community, even in the darkest of times."
U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, also spoke at the rally. Tonko, who like many of the rally participants, wore a mask, gave a short speech encouraging people to listen to the message of the nurses.
"It is great to be surrounded by so much nurse power," Tonko said. "I think your message is strong; it's bold; it's powerful, but beyond words your message is even stronger — your actions speak louder than any words."
Cathy Dawson, a registered nurse and nurse leader at Ellis Hospital, spoke at the rally.
“I used to work at Albany Med, so I know firsthand how they have historically treated nurses poorly," she said. "As a large academic medical center, they should be setting the standard for nursing care. At Ellis, we just won an amazing contract because we were persistent — we didn’t back down or give up. We know the Albany Med nurses can do the same, and we Ellis nurses are here in solidarity for as long as it takes.”
Bellevue Woman’s Center NYSNA President Jennifer Gunderman said her union also stands with the Albany nurses.
“During the pandemic, Albany Med nurses were leaders in COVID care for the entire Capital Region," she said. "They should be recognized for their heroism and their contribution to the health of our community.”