Nurses picketed outside Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville, New Jersey, on Tuesday to protest "the mistreatment of union members who stood up against unfair discipline," as well as unresolved contract issues, according to a statement from members of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.
Clara Maass Medical Center, which is part of RWJBarnabas Health, suspended nine nurses for attempting to deliver a petition on April 26, which asked the medical center to reconsider suspending a nurse for 2 weeks "after she safely ... rendered critical care to one of the hospital's patients who was in dire need of an IV line to enable the patient to receive medication."
Multiple nurses at the protest confirmed that the suspended nurse, who remains anonymous, temporarily immobilized a patient to administer an IV. The union said the nurse's suspension was "without just cause for an incident prompted by the acute staffing shortage at the hospital, despite the nurse following all hospital procedures and acting to protect the safety of her patient and herself."
The nurse was then fired on May 15 after she joined her fellow nurses in delivering the petition, which included 170 signatures from colleagues.
"Clara Maass Medical Center fired a nurse with 25 years of experience for attempting to deliver a petition to her manager. She had clocked out for the day and was accompanied by a handful of colleagues in support," the union's statement noted.
Lia Devers, RN, and Tanya Howard, RN, were among the nine nurses who walked with their anonymous colleague to deliver the petition. Within days of delivering the petition to management, all nine were temporarily suspended.
"It's outrageous that management suspended us, for speaking up for each other, in the middle of a chronic nurse shortage," said Howard, who has been a nurse at the hospital for more than two decades. "That left RNs on the floor even more overworked and unsafe, putting patients' lives at risk. Since many of the suspended nurses are strong leaders in our union, we feel targeted."
Howard said she feels her colleague was suspended and subsequently fired for simply doing her job, which is why she signed the petition.
Along with Devers and Howard, many of their fellow nurses think the suspensions were partly because of their active roles in the union. According to the union's statement, 1199SEIU has filed federal unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board.
However, according to a Clara Maass Medical Center spokesperson, "The initial disciplinary action of a nurse at the hospital stemmed from their actions with regard to patient care that not only violated hospital protocols, it was also so egregious that it likely would have violated protocols of care at any hospital."
"In fact, the action and subsequent discipline was reviewed and sanctioned by the employee's peers through a standard peer review process that the union was fully aware of and participated in," the spokesperson added, noting that the additional nurses were disciplined because they "surrounded an experienced nursing director on a patient unit and in front of patient rooms to challenge the suspension of the individual involved in the original patient issue."
The nurses' manager then filed a complaint because they felt "intimidated and threatened," the spokesperson noted.
Howard said that only her colleague spoke and that those who came with her to deliver the petition were only there in support. The hospital declined MedPage Today's request to share its policies on immobilizing patients for IVs or for delivering petitions.
"We are picketing for a safe patient ratio, retroactive pay, fair pay for our senior nurses who have 30+ years of experience who we need to help educate new hires," said Devers, whose suspension ended today, along with the other nurses. She said she is eager to rejoin her colleagues on the floor. "When you have one nurse missing from the staff, it can be felt throughout the hospital," she added.
The union and Clara Maass Medical Center have been negotiating since more than 500 nurses voted to unionize with 1199SEIU last August. The newly formed union still does not have its first contract with the health system.
Clara Maass's spokesperson said that the medical center "immediately offered the union a market adjustment wage increase at the very first negotiations session," which the union rejected. "We hope the union will reconsider our offer to increase nurses' pay so these increases can go into effect as soon as possible," the spokesperson added.