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Albany Med Nurses Contract: Long Time Coming

Unionized nurses joined by elected officials and labor leaders rallied outside Albany Medical Center in November 2020.
WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
Unionized nurses joined by elected officials and labor leaders rallied outside Albany Medical Center - November 2020.

After three long years, Albany Medical Center and the New York State Nurses Association reached a contract agreement.

In 2018, more than 2,000 nurses at Albany Medical Center voted to join the New York State Nurses Association.  Contract negotiations were ongoing until this past Wednesday when the hospital and union reached agreement on a pact 97% of the nurses approved.

It was a rocky road leading up to the new deal.  In July 2019 the nurses took their patient care concerns public by holding a press conference across the street from Albany Med's main entrance. 

Karen Gerstenberger, a 30-year veteran Cardio-Pulmonary ICU nurse at AMC, expressed the caregiver’s concerns.

"Management continues to drag its feet on providing us with a contract that reflects the quality of care that we provide. We are here today urging management to shift course and agree to reasonable staffing protections and basic union standards that will allow Albany Med to attract and retain the best nurses."

A planned picket was stymied when the hospital filed an unfair labor practice charge alleging the union violated federal law by announcing its intent to picket before mediators could intervene.

But at the end of September, a sea of red shirts lined the New Scotland Avenue sidewalk outside the 766-bed facility. Hundreds of nurses picketed as NYSNA continued its call to increase the staff-to-patient ratio at the hospital, arguing patient care was being impacted.  ICU Nurse Jennifer Bejo:  

“We’re raising awareness to the community, for them to know that we are fighting for something big. Big. Bigger than what we ever thought.”

Negotiations inched forward, as the coronavirus pandemic settled over the city. Nurses alleged they were forced to re-use N95 masks and conceal a COVID outbreak at the hospital, which the hospital disputed.  NYSNA filed an OSHA complaint.

At the end of November 2020, nurses rejected a contract offer and declared a one-day strike: Hospital President and CEO Dr. Dennis McKenna called it "heartbreaking," adding there were no interruptions in patient care or hospital services.

"As for the strike, my belief is that it was nothing more than a reckless gamble. And they have struck out."

Things struck a nerve when 700 temporary nurses were contracted for a three-day period, and management informed nurses who participated in the strike they would not immediately be allowed to return to work.

In December McKenna alleged the union had hired a truck to intimidate his 10-year-old son, following the child's school bus.  Union officials branded the allegations “beyond absurd” and “insulting” but confirmed the union had indeed hired a truck.

Through it all, hospital officials insisted they maintained appropriate staffing and were negotiating in good faith.

Three years of bitter negotiations ended June 30th, when McKenna announced on social media there was an agreement:

"This is a contract that allows us as a medical center and as a workforce, to move forward, and to move forward together."

The contract provides 1.5% annual guaranteed raises with up to an additional 1.5% merit-based increase. Weekend and shift differentials would be “significantly increased.” 

“This contract is fair to all our employees and reflects the values we all share.”

McKenna says a $1000 bonus will be paid to each nurse who refers a new nurse employee to the hospital, provided the new hire stays for one year. Nurses can voluntarily opt-in to union membership, but the contract applies to both members and non-members.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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