Southern Ocean Medical Center Nurses Walk Picket Line

They've Been Working Without Contract for Three Weeks
Aug 22, 2018
Photo by: Rick Mellerup

Dozens of nurses walked in an informational picket line on the lawn in front of the Southern Ocean Medical Center in Manahawkin last Wednesday evening, chanting, carrying signs and bullhorns, and attracting the supportive honks of many motorists driving on Route 72.

Readers may be asking, “wait a minute,” didn’t they just sign a contract?”

It does seem like only yesterday that the nurses had reached agreement with Hackensack Meridian Health, SOMC’s parent company. Actually, though, it was over a year ago on Aug. 1, 2017. It was only a one-year contract.

Approximately 300 SOMC nurses, along with over 2,000 of their colleagues and other healthcare workers at three other Hackensack Meridian Health Facilities – the Palisades Medical Center and The Harborage nursing home in North Bergen and the Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune – are currently working without a contract.

Represented by their union, Health Professionals and Allied Employees, New Jersey’s largest healthcare union with some 13,000 members in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the nurses are, of course, bargaining for a pay raise. But more important, said Barbara Bosch, president of HPAE Local 5138 at SOMC, are concerns about Hackensack Meridian Health demanding givebacks and, especially, staffing levels.

“It’s all about staffing, patient care and protecting our licenses,” she said.

Bosch said Hackensack Meridian wasn’t cutting staff. But she said the floors are already sometimes understaffed, especially on weekends. That, she said, can affect patient safety.

“We need more people at bedside,” she stated.

According to HPAE, current hospital staffing regulations in New Jersey, which only set limited standards, have not been updated since 1987.

“Technology, reduced hospital stays and patient care have undergone drastic changes, but staffing regulations have remained stagnant, unchanged, and un-enforced,” reads a union flier. “While our state chooses to do little to improve staffing levels, HPAE local unions have fought for, and won, nurse-to-patient staffing ratios and limits on floating and flexing in collective bargaining contracts. Past HPAE victories and research studies demonstrate that safe staffing levels are linked to better patient outcomes and improved working conditions. New Jersey’s hospitals can and must do more.”

One of the union’s slogans during this contract negotiation is “Keep Patients Safe.” Another is “Patient Health Before Corporate Wealth.”

Hackensack Meridian Health, with 16 hospitals, 4,520 beds, approximately 33,000 employees and some 6,500 staff physicians as well as over 200 ambulatory centers, fitness centers and skilled nursing centers, is battling it out with RWJBarnabas Health to become New Jersey’s largest healthcare system. And HPAE is saying HMH is certainly not struggling.

In 2016, says the union, publicly available records show Hackensack Meridian Health reported annual profits of $338 million. In January of this year the company projected its annual revenues at $5.5 billion.

But, HPAE says, HMH pays its top officers millions of dollars and spends tens of millions of dollars on lobbying and public relations while refusing to reach a settlement with its nurses and other healthcare workers for livable, respectable wages and safe staffing levels.

The union pointed out that Hackensack Meridian Health’s co-chief executive officers, Robert Garrett and John Lloyd, respectively made $4.5 million and $3.9 million in 2016. In 2016 the healthcare company spent $26.2 million on advertising and promotions, $7.9 million on legal expenses and $1.3 million on lobbying. Between 2014 and 2016, the Hackensack and Meridian health systems jointly spent $91.9 million on those activities.

“The hospital system is quite profitable and certainly not going broke,” said HPAE President Ann Twomey.

The contracts for the Palisades Medical Center and the Harborage expired on July 20 while the contracts for SOMC and the Jersey Shore University Medical Center expired at the end of the month.

According to HPAE spokeswoman Bridget Devane, Hackensack Meridian Health representatives had not sat at the bargaining table with the union for 10 days as of Monday, despite the fact a federal mediator was called in in July.

Last year the nurses authorized their bargaining committees to give Hackensack Meridian Health 10 days’ warning of a strike or “another form of concerted activity” a week before the contract expiration date. The nurses have not yet taken that step in 2018.

“This week the bargaining teams are focused on bargaining,” said Devane. “Based on how this week goes, we’ll see what is their next step.”

Hackensack Meridian Health did not respond to a request for comment.

— Rick Mellerup

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