Sick and tired of not having the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and being short on staff while battling COVID-19, city nurses took legal action this week.
The NYNA has 42,000 nurses, including 3,000 at Montefiore. The lawsuit seeks to address severe workplace hazards that are causing or are likely to cause a nurse’s death or serious physical harm.
“Registered nurses have high risk, physically demanding jobs where they routinely confront workplace violence, are obligated to lift heavy patients and commonly experience other physical stressors,” the lawsuit states. “Further, RNs often face occupational exposure to serious infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and influenza. Because of these difficult working conditions, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, nursing had one of the highest rates of occupational injury and illness of any profession.”
Plagued by the serious illness and, in some instances, death, the nurses on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic are facing, NYSNA is seeking a reverse Boys Markets injunction to compel Montefiore to immediately take steps required to protect the nurses’ health and safety pending the outcome of the arbitration.
Last week, NYSNA initiated a grievance under the parties’ collective bargaining agreement (CBA) challenging the hospital’s widespread and systemic failure during the COVID-19 pandemic to “take steps necessary to assure employee health and safety” as required under the CBA.
By the time that the grievance will be heard at arbitration and an award is issued, it will be too late to fix the damage caused by the hospital’s persistent failure to comply with its contractual obligations, particularly the serious illnesses that the nurses, their patients and families have already suffered.
As of April 21, there have been approximately 134,874 confirmed cases in New York City and 9,562 deaths, according to city data.
Nurses caring for COVID-19 patients, many of whom have a persistent and aggressive cough, are regularly exposed to aerosolized droplets. Furthermore, during medical procedures such as intubations, when COVID-19 patients are put on a ventilator to assist in breathing, the number of aerosolized droplets and the risk to RNs significantly increases. Airborne particles are smaller and drier, so they travel farther and stay in the air longer. Without proper ventilation, the air itself in a COVID-19 hospital unit can become contaminated and deadly.
State-wide, at least eight nurses have died due to COVID-19 contracted at work and at least 84 have been hospitalized with life-threatening COVID symptoms. Approximately 72 percent of NYSNA’s members have been exposed to COVID-19 at work. Even though testing has been only sporadically available for non-hospitalized nurses, 954 nurses already have tested positive, including at least 150 at Montefiore.
NYSNA estimates that at least another 150 nurses at Montefiore could test positive for COVID-19 unless the hospital takes action to assure their health and safety.
Since January, NYSNA has attempted to work with the hospital to address the COVID-19 crisis by implementing basic safety measures for the nurses and their patients. But, their efforts have been ignored.
“Montefiore has become a major center for treating COVID-19 and suspected COVID 19 patients,” the lawsuit states. “Right now, the hospital is like a war zone. The RNs there are treating large numbers of very sick and frightened patients, and are doing so with inadequate and often ill-fitting equipment, often in rooms that have not been properly converted to deal with COVID-19 patients, often working while they are sick because they have been forced back to work too early, often in practice areas where they have never been trained, and generally without adequate testing to ensure they are fit to work without infecting others.”
For front line health care workers like the Montefiore nurses, precautions must include the provision of adequate protective masks, such as N95s, that are not improperly stored and reused day after day, and the provision of non-permeable gowns and other covering, both in sufficient numbers so that they may be changed when needed.
It also includes a proper space to take the gowns off so that disease-free areas in the hospital do not become contaminated, and so that disease-infected air does not linger.
Finally, the precautions must include allowing nurses to take guaranteed leave so that they are not forced to work while sick with COVID symptoms and coronavirus testing on demand so they do not come back to work too soon and infect their co-workers and patients.
“NYSNA brings this lawsuit because Montefiore has rejected the union’s repeated efforts to work with the hospital to lessen the risks posed by COVID-19 so that more New Yorkers will not die needlessly—be they the Montefiore nurses themselves, the patients they care for, the doctors and other medical personnel with whom they work, the families they come home to, or the people whose paths they cross at the grocery store, the pharmacy and on public transportation while traveling to and from work,” the lawsuit says. “Nurses, as unwitting carriers, may pass the disease to someone who, because of age, a compromised immune system, or bad luck, suffers serious or even fatal consequences.”