MANHATTAN (CN) — “Right now, the hospital is like a war zone,” New York’s largest union for nurses said Monday, hitting Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx with a federal complaint over what it calls a systemic failure to keep workers safe during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“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,” the New York State Nurses Association says.
Represented in the Southern District courthouse by Cohen Weiss and Simon attorney Joseph Vitale, the union has already filed a grievance. Until an arbitrator resolves that matter, however, it wants the hospital to supply nurses with sufficient and tight-fitting masks and gowns, provide high-efficiency air filters, and comply with union-negotiated staffing ratios, particularly for patients in intensive care units or on respirators.
The union represents 42,000 nurses across the state, about 3,000 of whom work at some of Montefiore’s numerous Bronx campuses. At least eight New York nurses have already died from Covid-19 across the state, according to the complaint, which calls on Montefiore to ensure that workers have a secure space to don and the protective equipment so that disease-free areas in the hospital do not become contaminated.
At least 150 registered nurses at Montefiore have tested positive for Covid-19, and the union expects that number to double unless the hospital takes immediate steps to assure the workers’ health and safety.
While members of the general public are directed to self-quarantine for 14 days — collecting sick pay during this period if their employer has 100 or more employees — the nurses say Montefiore’s policy invites a public health crisis.
“Montefiore is directing nurses under quarantine/isolation orders or doctor attestations, or who otherwise reported having Covid-19 symptoms, to use their own sick bank and/or return to work after seven days, regardless of whether the RN’s symptoms had improved,” the complaint states.
For the union, such protocol “is nothing less than a gamble with the nurses’ and public’s health.”
The union cites a study last week by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that estimated health care personnel make up 19% of all Covid-19 cases in the United States, with at least 9,200 infected health care workers in the country.
In addition to the federal complaint, the nurses brought similar allegations in state court Monday against the Westchester Medical Center on Monday.
“More than 7 in 10 of our nurses are reporting exposure to COVID-19 and most are still untested,” Pat Kane, executive director of the union, said in a statement Monday. “These lawsuits were filed to protect our nurses, our patients and our communities from grossly inadequate and negligent protections. We cannot allow these dangerous practices to continue.”
While no representatives for Montefiore responded to a request for comment, the Westchester Medical Center Health Network said the allegations in the union’s suit against it are wrong.
“Our focus is, and has always been, protecting our workforce, which has been aligned from the outset in treating the most severely ill patients battling Covid-19,” the hospital system said in a statement Monday. “NYSNA’s lawsuit is irresponsible and a distraction from this work, and a disservice to all who are valiantly caring for these patients every day.”
As of Monday, New York state reported 132,467 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with more than 34,000 of those cases resulting in hospitalizations.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called on the federal government this afternoon to provide hazard pay for essential public workers on the front lines, proposing a 50% bonus for these workers.
“This crisis is not over yet, and as long as these workers continue to work and expose themselves to the virus, they should be properly compensated,” the governor said his daily briefing.
The State Department of Health began statewide antibody testing Monday.