Federal Mediator Joins Contract Negotiations for Nurses at Southern Ocean Medical Center

Strike a Possibilty
Aug 01, 2017
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Negotiations continued on Tuesday between the union representing nearly 1,500 nurses at Manahawkin’s Southern Ocean Medical Center and Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune and Hackensack Meridian Health in the face of a possible job action.

The nurses’ contract expired on July 31, but they agreed to extend their contract by one day to continue negotiating.

“They are at the table right now,” Bridget Devane, director of the Health Professional and Allied Employee Public Policy Department, told The SandPaper at 4:52 p.m. on Tuesday, “and have agreed on another extension until tomorrow, Wednesday, Aug. 2, at 7 a.m.

“The nurses have scheduled membership meetings throughout the day tomorrow to update the nurses on negotiations. They are progressing and plan to keep bargaining rather than conduct any public action at this time.”

On Friday, Devane had announced that a federal mediator had been called in to the bargaining table. The negotiations started on June 21.

HPAE, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), AFL-CIO, represents the nurses in question, as it does some 13,000 healthcare workers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Hackensack Meridian Health, New Jersey’s second largest hospital system, is the parent organization for 13 Garden State hospitals including Jersey Shore and Southern Ocean Medical Center as well as more than 200 ambulatory centers, fitness and wellness centers, home health services, rehab centers and skilled nursing centers from Bergen to Atlantic counties.

Nurses at both hospitals voted last week to authorize a strike or “another form of concerted activity” if they are unable to reach an agreement by July 31.

“At this point the nurses voted to notify the bargaining committee of a strike, but the committee hasn’t yet (formally) notified the company,” said Devane. “They want to wait to see if the addition of the federal mediator would help reach an agreement.”

In an email follow-up with The SandPaper on Friday, Devane further explained what the vote to authorize a strike really means.

“The authorization allows the negotiating committees for the nurses to send the HMH administration a 10-day notice of their intent to strike or other form of concerted activity. With the mediator’s presence, the nurses have opted to continue to negotiate up until July 31. If a settlement is not reached by July 31 the nurses will continue to work and at that time make a determination whether to give the employer notice of a concerted activity the week of August 10, which would be 10 days from that point.”

Devane had said on Friday that the two sides were “moving forward” but added, “they’re not there yet.”

Jersey Shore University Medical Center employs about 1,100 nurses; Southern Ocean Medical Center has approximately 350.

This is the first contract negotiation the nurses have had since Hackensack University Health Network and Meridian Health merged in 2016. SOMC, previously known as Southern Ocean County Hospital, joined Meridian Health in 2009.

The two most contentious issues in the current negotiations are staffing and health benefits.

Staffing has probably been a concern of nurses since the days of Florence Nightingale. The nurses and their union noted that Hackensack Meridian Health reported earning $218.9 million in its first six months of operation, so it should be able to able to establish legally binding staff-to-patient levels for all units.

“At one time we were part of a community hospital, caring for our family members, neighbors and friends,” said Sally Fessler, president of HPAE Local 5138 at SOMC after the nurses’ vote was taken. “As nurses, working in a large healthcare corporation, we are engaging our communities to join our efforts to make sure patient care comes first at Hackensack Meridian facilities.”

“Patients deserve to have enough healthcare staff to take care of them when they need us,” said Kendra McCann, president of HPAE Local 5058 at Jersey Shore. “Hackensack Meridian has a choice to make patient care a priority over profits.”

It may be a surprise to some readers, however, that health insurance coverage is a concern for nurses employed by a large healthcare corporation.

The nurses at Jersey Shore and Southern Ocean have a tiered health insurance plan. In other words, their out-of-pocket expenses are lowest when they visit a Hackensack Meridian Health facility or doctor. But those out-of-pocket expenses are much higher if they go out of the Hackensack Meridian Health system.

HMH has about 6,000 doctors, so it would seem finding a specialist in-network would be no problem. But Devane said that isn’t the case.

“At times the nurses have difficulty accessing specialists in the HMH system,” she said, adding the situation was particularly frustrating for mothers with children with special needs, particularly autistic kids. “They’re spending a significant amount of money on health care; many have gone into debt.”

One thing is sure, said Devane: HMH won’t be able to split the two locals, trying to reach separate contract agreements.

“They will stay together,” she confidently declared.

— Rick Mellerup


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