ITHACA, NY – The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is in Ithaca this week, hearing a case regarding nurses at Cayuga Medical Center (CMC) and the hospital’s alleged attempts to block them from forming a union.

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There are five separate cases being brought against CMC, which include charges of: coercive rules, coercive actions (such as surveillance), coercive statements (such as threats or promises of benefits), discipline, and changes in terms and conditions of employment. Since the details of specific incidents are under review in the hearing, they were not available for this report.

According to a press release from the Labor Religion Coalition of the Finger Lakes, several CMC nurses have been subpoenaed to testify at the hearings. If the NLRB decide in the nurses’ favor, CMC could be mandated to pay back wages, restore employees to previous positions, correct or retract written discipline from employee files, and/or publicly communicate to employees that the hospital violated federal labor law and outline how it would refrain from doing so in the future.

The hearings began on Monday and will continue throughout the week at the Tompkins County Office for the Aging.

Why some CMC nurses want a union

The push for unionizing, which began about a year ago, is based in large part on staffing issues at Cayuga Medical Center. The hospital does not have enough staff to safely meet its needs for patient care, according to Anne Marshall, a Registered Nurse who works in the Intensive Care Unit. Marshall is among the nurses pushing for a union.

“This wasn’t our first choice. We met with the administration over the last few years and they basically heard what we had to say but didn’t make any changes. Our biggest complaint was nurse to patient ratio and safe staffing and patient safety,” Marshall said. “We approached them numerous times about hiring more nurses, keeping the nurses that we had… not losing good nurses due to poor pay or poor working conditions or because they didn’t feel like they were operating in a safe manner to get the most for their patients.”

Marshall said its particularly problematic in the ICU and Emergency Room, especially as there has been a number of nurses departing especially in those units in recent months. She added that the staffing shortage has led to other nurses being called in or asked to work longer shifts, perpetuating a cycle of exhaustion and burnout.

Marshall said that in other states, like California, there is a mandated ratio of one nurse to two patients in the ICU. She said CMC sometimes falls short of these staffing levels, with one ICU nurse sometimes caring for three patients.

“You’re not being able to provide adequate care, it’s dangerous, mistakes happen because you’re trying to do too many things at once,” Marshall said. “You know, this isn’t flipping burgers, we have peoples’ lives in our hands.”

Marshall said that if a union could be established, it could alleviate this issue because clauses could be written into the contract to ensure a level of accountability for the hospital management, such as requiring certain staffing levels be met.

Hospital refutes all claims

According to John Turner, Vice President of Public Relations at Cayuga Medical Center, the hospital denies all claims that it violated any labor laws and maintains that it is a safe and pleasant place to work.

“We do recognize and respect the right of our nurses to explore third party representation… We respect that, we’ve honored that and certainly have gone about our way to make sure that accurate information is getting out there in presenting that,” Turner said.

In terms of safety, Turner noted that CMC goes through an survey every three years by the Joint Commission and it was the only hospital in the region to get an “A” rating from the non-profit Leapfrog Group, which measures hospital safety.

Turner also raised questions about how popular the movement to unionize really was. He suggested that if the nurses had an interested majority, they would have proceeded with the union election process.

Additionally, Turner reported that when a recent survey of over 700 employees asked the question “Is Cayuga Medical Center a great place to work?,” the score averaged out to 4.2 out of 5.

“That speaks volume about the culture,” Turner said. “Obviously, those claims are not true, otherwise that score would be a completely different culture.”

Marshall, however, claimed that over 50 percent of the nurses at CMC had signed cards saying they wanted to form a union. She explained that union organization assisting the effort, 1199SEIU (Service Employees International Union), wanted 70 percent signed on so that the election process would be more of a certainty.

She also stated that in spite of the survey Turner mentioned, she had seen other surveys, particularly among the ICU nurses that indicated that many people were “beyond frustrated” with their work situation.

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.