New Jersey’s nurses, lauded as heroes during the COVID-19 pandemic, have faced mixed results in labor negotiations with some of the state’s health systems this month.
Unionized nurses have signed a new three-year contract with the state’s largest public hospital, Bergen New Bridge Medical Center. But hundreds 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 nurses’ union questioned Hackensack Meridian Health over its decision to close child care centers at six of its hospitals, leading the health system to announce a three-month reprieve on Tuesday. Hackensack Meridian officials said the centers in Hackensack, Neptune, Brick, Red Bank, Edison and North Bergen would remain open through Dec. 31, instead of closing Sept. 30.
The COVID-19 pandemic placed unprecedented stress on nurses, who faced higher patient loads, shortages of protective gear and exposure to illness themselves. Some left staff positions for higher-paid positions as travel nurses and others left the profession entirely, with the result that many health care institutions are short-staffed. About 17% of nurses nationwide are unionized.
The signing ceremony at Bergen New Bridge in Paramus on Wednesday was an unusual moment of concord for Health Professionals and Allied Employees, the state’s largest health care workers’ union, in its relations with hospitals, said Debbie White, the union president.
“This is not your normal [situation] across the state,” she said. “We have a collaboration here.” Bergen New Bridge and University Hospital in Newark, where a contract was ratified in March, have been particularly supportive of employee interests, she said. Both are publicly owned.
The Bergen County hospital is owned by the county and operated by Care Plus Bergen, a nonprofit partnership of Care Plus NJ, Integrity House and Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. It has more than 1,000 beds in acute care, behavioral health, substance-abuse treatment and long-term care.
The contract for 500 nurses includes pay raises that are expected to equal or exceed inflation over the next three years, pay rate adjustments to account for members’ prior work experience, and improvements in the tuition reimbursement program.
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Meanwhile, 2,600 professional staff at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences who are represented by HPAE have been working without a new contract since July 1. They have asked for stronger job security, access to telework, lower parking costs, and competitive salaries and benefits, among other items to be negotiated.
And 250 nurses represented by the New Jersey Nurses Unionpart of Communications Workers of America Local 1091, saw their contact expire on April 30. Terms have been extended twice, the union said.
The union has made multiple proposals to address short-staffing and low retention rates at both facilities, but “so far, management has only offered a percentage [pay increase] that is an average of 3.8% for all nurses,” said a union spokeswoman, Steph Derstine.
Management of the RWJBarnabas Health system continues to rely on travel nurses who are paid nearly double the hourly wage of tenured nurses, the union said. “Instead of continuing to rely on travel nurses, they should be investing in their current staff,” said Shannon Gomes, a registered nurse who is part of the bargaining committee.
A spokeswoman for RWJBarnabas said the union’s “nurses are not working without a contract. The parties agreed to extend the contract while negotiations continue, which has always been the parties’ practice.”
The New Jersey Nurses Union represents over 1,500 registered nurses, including those at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, where the contract is set to expire on Nov. 2.