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.