A nurses' union is accusing Albany Medical Center of violating human trafficking law, forcing Filipino nurses to continue working there under the threat of severe financial penalties.
A federal lawsuit alleges Albany Med began employing nurses from the Philippines through a program initiated in 2002. Nurse Jennifer Bejo has spent more than a decade working in the hospital's ICU: "The lawsuit was filed by the New York State Nurses Association, mainly because they have seen something that's unlawful, a clause in our contract that is not legal, and they are just doing their job, they're representing nurses who still are under that contract. They shouldn't be penalized if they decide to leave before their contract ends. If this is the only way to make things better for them, to make things better for the new wave of nurses who have decided or who are still writing to come here and work in the United States."
Union officials note between 80 and 100 Filipino nurses are currently working under the contract, which Bejo says contains a provision requiring them to repay the hospital up to $20,000 in "placement fees" if they leave the program during their first three years of employment. Those fees reportedly represent the cost of bringing the nurses to the United States.
Albany Common Council member Tom Hoey is also a statewide union officer for United University Professions, which represents health care workers in three other hospitals. "We're so lucky to have a union that looks after our workers. And for anybody today saying unions aren't needed or they're from the past, this shows exactly why unions are needed. We need to be able to enforce the laws that are out there for our working people."
Hoey says he is disgusted that Albany Med, one of the city's largest employers, "would carry on like this."
Anita Thayer Co-Chairs Citizen Action of New York's Capital District Chapter. "It's really an outrage, this situation that nurses, based on their country of national origin would be subject to a different standard of renumeration, extraordinary conditions concerning their freedom to speak, work in the nursing sector across the board, and also that they would be subject apparently, if they step out of line, to a phone call to INS or to ICE. So that is just not appropriate and it's outrageous that a medical institution dedicated to the alleviation of human suffering and improvement of our health would hold nurses to that standard."
A union spokesperson says last year, most of the 2,000 nurses employed at Albany Med voted to join NYSNA. Arguing patient care is being impacted, the union has been calling for an increase in the staff-to-patient ratio at the hospital. Albany Med’s incoming CEO Dennis McKenna says negotiations with the union will continue, but... "We're not gonna remain silent. Our position is very clear. It's a groundless lawsuit being used to try to influence our negotiations for a nurse's contract, and it's a blatant mischaracterization of an excellent program that over 18 years has benefitted 584 nurses and 13 med techs. These are professionals that came here from the Philippines, we've worked alongside them, they provide great care, they came here voluntarily, and hundreds of them still remain in our employment to this day."
More from Dr. McKenna and Nurse Bejo: