Stressed NJ nurses, COVID heroes, get mixed results in contract talks

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New Jersey nurses, hailed as heroes during the COVID-19 pandemic, faced mixed results in labor negotiations with some of the state’s health systems this month.

Union nurses have signed a new three-year contract with the state’s largest public hospital, Bergen New Bridge Medical Center. But hundreds of people are working without new contracts at Monmouth Medical Center Southern Campus in Lakewood, Barnabas Health Behavioral Health Center in Toms River and Rutgers University’s Biomedical and Health Sciences Division, their unions said.

And a union of nurses asked Hackensack Meridian Health about its decision to close child care centers in six of its hospitals, leading the health system to announce a three-month reprieve on Tuesday. Hackensack Meridian officials said centers in Hackensack, Neptune, Brick, Red Bank, Edison and North Bergen would remain open until December 31, instead of closing on September 30.

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented pressure on nurses, who have had to deal with higher patient loads, protective equipment shortages and exposure to the disease themselves. Some have left staff positions for higher paying positions as traveling nurses and others have left the profession altogether, leaving many health care facilities understaffed. About 17% of nurses nationally are unionized.

The signing ceremony at Bergen New Bridge in Paramus on Wednesday was an unusual moment of harmony for healthcare professionals and Allied Employees, the state’s largest union of healthcare workers, in its dealings with hospitals, said Debbie White, the union’s president.

“It’s not your normal [situation] across the state,” she said. “We have a collaboration here.” The new Bergen Bridge and Newark University Hospital, where a contract was ratified in March, have been particularly supportive of employee interests, she said. Both are publicly owned.

Debbie White (L), president of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees Union, and Deb Visconi (R), president of Bergen New Bridge Medical Center, pose together before the signing ceremony of a three-year contract for 500 nurses at Bergen New Bridge in Paramus, July 27, 2022. (Photo: Mitsu Yasukawa/ Northjersey.com)

Bergen County Hospital is county-owned and operated by Care Plus Bergen, a nonprofit partnership between Care Plus NJ, Integrity House, and Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. It has more than 1,000 beds in acute care, behavioral health, addictions and long-term care.

Contract for 500 nurses includes pay increases expected to match or exceed inflation over next three years, pay rate adjustments to account for members’ prior work experience and reimbursement program improvements tuition.

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Meanwhile, 2,600 professional staff at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, represented by HPAE, have been working without new contracts since July 1. They demanded greater job security, access to telecommuting, reduced parking fees and competitive wages and benefits, among other things to be negotiated.

And 250 nurses represented by the New Jersey Nurses Unionwhich is part of the Communications Workers of America Local 1091, had its contact expire on April 30. The terms have been extended twice, the union said.

After:Nurseries will remain open until the end of the year

The union has made several proposals to address understaffing and low retention rates at both establishments, but “so far, management has only offered a percentage [pay increase] this is an average of 3.8% for all nurses,” said union spokesperson Steph Derstine.

Health system management RWJBarnabas continues to rely on traveling nurses who are paid nearly double the hourly wages of regular nurses, the union said. “Instead of continuing to rely on traveling nurses, they should invest in their current staff,” said Shannon Gomes, a registered nurse who serves on the bargaining committee.

A spokeswoman for RWJBarnabas said “union nurses are not working without a contract. The parties have agreed to extend the contract while negotiations continue, which has always been the practice of the parties.”

The New Jersey Nurses Union represents more than 1,500 registered nurses, including those at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, where the contract is due to expire Nov. 2.

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