RGH nurses vote to unionize

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Marking a first for area hospitals’ clinical workers, Rochester General Hospital nurses have voted to unionize.

According to a tally released yesterday by the health system, 759 nurses cast votes in the election, with 431 voting in favor of forming a union and 239 voting no. Thirty-three ballots are being challenged.

The tally needs to be certified by the National Labor Relations Board before the Rochester Union of Nurses and Allied Professionals officially forms.

The vote comes as the culmination of a months-long drive by nurses at the hospital, the Rochester region’s second largest acute-care facility and the area’s largest community hospital. A similar drive at the region’s largest hospital, Strong Memorial, did not succeed.

The RGH organization is an independent union, meaning that it is not affiliated with a larger regional or national labor group like the AFL-CIO.

In an email to RGH staff, Rochester Regional Health CEO Richard Davis, who has previously characterized the union organizers as an outside force, called the election’s outcome disappointing but vowed to work with the new union.

“While we are disappointed that our direct working relationship with our RGH nurses will change, we are committed to doing what it takes to heal and move forward as ONE TEAM. Thank you for your continued hard work and commitment to our patients, our community, and each other,” Davis wrote to RGH staff.

The union vote comes after two years during which RGH, along with other area health care facilities, were burdened as the coronavirus pandemic tested health care workers to the limit. As with all hospitals, nurses are charged with most of the day-to-day frontline care at RGH and bore much of the pandemic’s brunt.

RUNAP organizers cite staffing concerns and what they see as poor communication with management among top reasons for unionizing.

“It has been made clear that decisions are not being made in our best interests. Our mission is to provide care in a way that is safe to patients and nurses both. We cannot continue to meet the bare minimum of patient care because of lack of resources and staff,” reads a statement on the union’s website.

Under increasing pressure as the pandemic wore on over the past two years, many nurses quit, retired or went to work as temps for outside staffing agencies. Known as travel nurses, such temps typically make as much as three times the salaries of their full-time counterparts.

The financial strains of paying travel nurses weighed heavily on RRH’s budget, the health system’s chief medical officer, Robert Mayo M.D. acknowledged in an interview earlier this year.

Nurse turnover at RGH was running at an unprecedented 25 percent rate or higher and staffing agencies were recruiting scores of nurses while paying higher rates to travel nurses, putting heavy strains on the hospital’s budget, Mayo said in March.

Karen Keady, chief nursing executive at UR Medicine’s Strong Memorial Hospital, in January cited a similar nurse turnover rate and called the hospital’s hiring of travel nurses “financially unsustainable.”

RUNAP’s website lists contractually set minimum staffing levels for all hospital units including the emergency department among terms it plans to negotiate with RGH management.

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

One thought on “RGH nurses vote to unionize

  1. Unfortunately the success of the unionization within RGH is owned by the management of the hospital. Their inability, or unwillingness, to address the staffing issue has had a long history. Having spent many years as a medical imaging manager, I have experienced both the none union and unionized practices. If the management is responsive to the staff, in most cases, there is no need to unionize. After all, who wants an organization within an organization. However, when management doesn’t respond, it’s just a matter of time before the union gains a foothold. That, at times, gives management an opportunity to address the concerns. In the case of RGH, they have only themselves to blame. Having worked in a unionized setting, that also,… can have its challenges. In the end its a balance between the hospital and the union. It can be done. The mission of a hospital should be patient care, period. That said, I have seen patient care suffer in both settings. While a bit lengthy, I will give you an example. The hospital name will not be mentioned.

    In medical imaging we would receive requests for early morning post surgical chest x-rays. They would be transported by wheelchair to our department. On any given day there could be five to ten patients. One of the patients who was waiting to be returned to the floor began to bleed from the incision. It required immediate attention and after applying some pressure to the site, I asked one of the orderlies to take the patient back. The reply was, “oh no, I’ve done my quota for the day.” So I decided to take the patient back. When I came back to the department there was a phone call waiting for me. On the line was a union rep who was not to thrilled with my effort to return that patient to the room. “You are taking work away from our people,” was the message. An explanation was not even considered. That was my first incident with the union as a medical imaging director. I had only been at the hospital for a few days. To make a long story short, we came to an understanding that patient care was paramount. The union rules are fine as long as they do not interfere with the mission of that patients care. Apparently they were happy with my management style and patient care as a department, for when I decided to accept a new position at another hospital, they asked me if I would reconsider and stay. It can work, but it takes a tactful effort. My advice, don’t ever forget the patient, which today could be Mrs. Jones and tomorrow your mother, your grandparent or child. All patients have names, not just a numbers. Never losse sight of that fact. I wish the RGH and the newly elected union the very best. Work together for the sake of patient care excellence. I wish you well.

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