New Contract for Southern Ocean Medical Center Nurses Addresses Their Concerns About Staffing

Dec 19, 2018

Nurses at Southern Ocean Medical Center in Manahawkin and another hospital, the Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, ratified new 22-month contracts with their employer, the New Jersey healthcare giant Hackensack Meridian Health, on Thursday, Dec. 13. The contracts, which cover approximately 300 nurses at SOMC and 1,200 at JSUMC, were agreed to after nearly seven months of tough bargaining. The contracts run retroactively from July 31, 2018, through May 31, 2020.

The nurses, through their unions, Health Professionals and Associated Employees Locals 5138 (SOMC) and 5058 (JSUMC), had insisted throughout the nearly seven months of negotiating that their primary concern was the safety of patients and workers. Their new contracts seem to support the nurses’ claim.

The nurses will receive pay raises of up to 2.5 percent, reductions in cost for health insurance and increased access to care, access to protections under the Earned Sick Leave Act, and an increase in disability insurance coverage. But HMH also committed to hiring 44 new nurses at JSUMC and 14 at SOMC, reacting to the nurses’ concerns over safe staffing levels – especially, nurses had said, on weekends. And HMH agreed to a “no floating policy” – pulling a nurse from their regular nursing unit and temporarily assigning them to another unit to fill in for a nurse who called in sick or is on vacation – for new hires at SOMC.

Floating is a common practice at healthcare facilities throughout the country. It enables healthcare companies to save money through resource utilization. But nurses hate the practice because they feel increased stress and anxiety when working outside their normal units. They’re not familiar with the medical status of the patients they suddenly have to care for, which could lead to mistakes being made. The problem is exacerbated when new nurses are floated, which happens often because floats are often picked by seniority, leaving newbies to bear the brunt of the burden. Not surprisingly, floating is one of the most contentious contract negotiation points between nurses and healthcare companies across the country.

HMH’s commitment to hire new nurses should help with the situation, meaning the union scored a major victory.

“Our members stayed on track with our message that safe staffing level equals safer patient care,” said Sue Kaszuba, vice president of HPAE Local 5138 at SOMC. “Nothing can sidetrack us from our commitment to patient safety, and we proved that with an overwhelming defeat of a (union) decertification (effort) here at SOMC.”

“While we wish we could have found more common ground with HMH over staffing, we will continue to work on that issue through our staffing committee,” said Kendra McCann, president of HPAE Local 5058 at JSUMC. “HMH leaders know that this issue is not going to go away. It is in all our best interests if we work together to provide the best care possible to our patients.”

Interestingly, another provision of the new contract allows to take time off to participate in medical missions, such as organized trips to help children in poverty-stricken areas across the world and the like, or to respond to national disasters, proving that nurses truly are Good Samaritans.

The nurses also scored a victory by having the contracts run for the same length of time at both SOMC and JSUMC. That means when contract negotiations come up the next time, they will have strength in numbers when sitting at the bargaining table.

“The new agreement,” said HMH in a prepared statement, “will enable Southern Ocean Medical Center to continued to deliver safe, high quality care for our patients and provide sustainable fair and market competitive wages and benefits and a positive work environment for registered nurses. They also align HPAE-represented registered nurses’ terms and conditions of employment with other Hackensack Meridian Health registered nurses.

“Both bargaining committees put in a lot of hard work over the last several months discussing different ideas and developing solutions that ultimately led to this new labor contract. It certainly was not easy to get to where we are now.”

Rick Mellerup

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