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Leading the charge for safe staffing

New York Teacher
Anne Goldman

Anne Goldman
VP for Non-DOE Members

When a New York City high school fields a baseball or football team, it must have a minimum number of players, according to Public Schools Athletic League rules. But city hospitals are not required to have adequate staffing. The game of health is allowed to proceed knowingly shorthanded, without economic penalty and at risk to patients.

Our union is leading the fight to focus on this injustice and require proper staffing.

I have been working with the American Federation of Teachers, our national affiliate, on a new initiative called Code Red, which will focus a spotlight on the national crisis of short-staffing in health care. This $1 million campaign, which launched in February and will ultimately involve more than 100 AFT affiliates, will hold health care corporations and the government accountable for hospital staffing through education, outreach, advocacy, contract bargaining and legislation.

Employers have an obligation to staff hospitals with professional nurses who have the experience and skill to perform their duties competently and correctly for each patient. But today, a critical shortage of registered nurses threatens the industry’s ability to meet that standard. The health care system is stretched tenuously thin, and its nurses are exhausted, burned out, anxious and leaving the profession in droves, according to a recent AFT report.

Code Red kicked off in Oregon, where two AFT affiliates are pushing for the passage of state legislation to enshrine safe staffing standards. Similar bills will be introduced in other states.

Unions representing nurses have negotiated staffing ratio language in their contracts at Ohio State University, Kaiser Permanente and SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University.

The Federation of Nurses/UFT’s most recent collective bargaining agreement with NYU Langone Hospital-Brooklyn provided for the hiring of more than 100 registered nurses, along with an expedited hiring and recruiting process. The new contract strengthened a staffing subcommittee to better hold the hospital accountable to posting and selection timelines and to overall staffing commitments. In addition, it streamlined the often-arduous process for hearing staffing-shortage grievances. The stronger contractual language builds on a 2022 arbitration ruling that defined a contract violation concerning staffing and called for NYU Langone to pay a penalty to nurses who work in units without sufficient staff.

UFT-represented nurses at other hospitals have been diligent about filing grievances whenever they work a shift that is short-staffed.

The impact of understaffing — heavier workloads, mandatory overtime, constant fatigue, stress, injuries, errors and a breakdown in patient care — have long been concerning to this union. And the situation has only grown worse since the pandemic.

Health care employers have an obligation to the patients they serve. Increased in-hospital infections, more medical errors and increased mortality can all be traced to improper staffing.

Nurses want to do an excellent job for every patient; they don’t want to leave their shifts exhausted and depressed over the level of patient care. The Federation of Nurses/UFT and the AFT are creating proposals to improve nursing recruitment and retention so hospitals can offer quality patient care.

As union members, we are working to create safe environments with adequate staffing so every patient has the chance for a favorable medical outcome — with solutions driven by professional nurses, not hospital accountants.