By Tien-Shun Lee
Bearing signs saying “We want more patient time,” home-care nurses from St. Vincent's Catholic Medical Center protested outside their office in Rego Park last Thursday, demanding a fair contract that would allow them to spend more time with patients and less time doing paperwork.
“They're paying us for seven-hour days, and they want us to work 11 hours,” said a nurse from Flushing who did not give her name. “We can't take care of our patients in a safe manner. We feel unappreciated. All we want is a fair contract so we can do our duties.”
The contract for the some 75 nurses at St. Vincent's Catholic Medical Center expired April 30. Since then, the nurses, who belong to the New York State Nurses Association, a union with more than 34,000 members, have been trying to convince management to stick to its written policy of assigning them no more than 17 to 23 patients per week.
Instead, nurses have been assigned to as many as 40 to 50 patients a week, NYSNA representatives said. In addition, they must spend time traveling between patients' homes and filling out detailed paperwork. Patients live throughout Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Long Island.
“We hope this demonstration will convince management to work with us to negotiate a fair contract,” said Ron Musselwhite, a labor representative for NYSNA, who warned “it could ultimately end up in a strike.”
Michael Fagan, a spokesman for St. Vincent's Catholic Medical Center, said management would continue to negotiate the terms of a nursing contract at the bargaining table, not in a public forum.
“Patients treated by home health care nurses receive highly competent and appropriate nursing care,” said Fagan. “We have great respect for our nursing staff and we value the professional, compassionate care they provide to our patients.”
He added, “We remain optimistic that we will be able to receive a mutual, responsible agreement.”
On a typical day, nurses see six to eight patients in their homes, from 7 a.m. to about 4:30 p.m., said Shirley Hunter, a nurse for 23 years who is the chairwoman of NYSNA. Then they spend several more hours at home completing paperwork.
Paperwork for one new patient can take an hour to an hour and a half to complete, Hunter said. With up to three new admissions per day, paperwork can take up to five hours a day to complete.
“The administration's focus is to give you more patients, less time and no time for documentation,” Hunter said. “There are many tools they could use to reduce documentation.”
Lorraine Jacobson, a nurse from Forest Hills, said nurses had tried without success to convince administrators to hire facilitators to help nurses with paperwork and coordination between doctors and patients, as well as to hire more nurses.
“The ratio of nurse to patient is too high,” Jacobson said.
Many nurses do not take time out for lunch because they are too busy driving to their patients' homes in time to administer their medication, Hunter said. Once in a patient's home, nurses typically spend 45 minutes to an hour taking care of the person, arranging follow-up visits, educating families about how and when to administer medication and what side effects to watch for.
“One of the lawyers on the negotiating team told us to talk to our patients less. They're expecting us to be 15-minute nurses,” Hunter said. “We refuse to be factory nurses. We're responsible for the lives of these patients.”
Fagan said he did not have any public comment on the nurses' specific complaints.
Home-care nursing is especially important with the rising costs of health-care coverage, which has resulted in many patients being sent home quicker and sicker, Hunter said.
Even as they were picketing, many nurses were thinking of the patients they would see during the day and rushed off at 9 a.m. to go about their normal workday.
The last nurses' strike of home-care nurses took place in Staten Island in 1993, Musselwhite said. It lasted for six to seven weeks and resulted in nurses being given a day during the week to do paperwork.
Musselwhite said he hoped to be able to negotiate a fair contract without nurses going on strike. “The patients are the ones that are really hurt bad.”
Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.