Labor leaders spoke out against Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center (MHMC) on Tuesday, alleging ongoing violations of the rights of nurses and healthcare workers. But the hospital responded by saying that other workers have signed a petition saying the union’s actions are damaging the hospital’s reputation.
The Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE) union, which represents 350 workers at MHMC, has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board seeking an injunction ordering the hospital to stop the alleged activities.
The list of violations allegedly committed by the hospital include retaliation against union employees through intimidation, layoffs, and reduction of hours; requiring employees to fill prescriptions at the in-house hospital pharmacy because of the loss of prescription coverage; hiring nurses’ at minimum wage as part of an intern program; and issues with paychecks.
The union also says that the hospital has allegedly failed to provide them with information on firings and layoffs, and a response to questions about 48 surveillance cameras that have allegedly been placed throughout the facility.
HPAE has also asked for an independent state monitor to step in to evaluate the working conditions.
Hospital Acting CEO and President Lynn McVey responded on Thursday by saying, “There have been 39 prior ‘grievances’ filed by some HPAE workers. Every one of them has been adjudicated – as having no merit, and all 39 were dismissed.”
Tensions between the nurses union and Meadowlands Hospital are ongoing.
“The advancements and improvements in patient care being made here in just two years have been nothing short of remarkable,” noted McVey. “So it makes it even more disappointing when our own employees have to petition their own union colleagues, to say in effect, ‘hey, guys, enough is enough. Stop throwing rocks at our own windows.’ ”
“If conditions are not safe for the worker, conditions are not safe for the patients,” said Ann Twomey, HPAE president, during a press conference held at Crown Plaza on Tuesday. NJ-AFLCIO President Charles Wowkanech sat next to Twomey in a room filled with union members.
“This is the sole reason why we are speaking out today and the sole reason we are taking action,” said Twomey.
“In my long service in this position I have never seen a hospital act like this,” said Wowkanech. “The residents in this community should be aware of what is going on in this hospital. If the owners of this facility don’t respect their workers and they treat the workers like this, you seriously have to question the treatment and the care that patients are getting.”
MHA, a for-profit, private company, purchased Meadowlands Hospital from LibertyHealth in December of 2010. The union claims that violations have occurred since the new owners took over. Their past complaints have led to state investigations.
After an investigation last year, the state released a 25-page report listing procedural and policy-related deficiencies. MHMC issued a correction action plan to address those issues. Hospital owners Dr. Richard Lipsky and Tamara Dunaev said at the time that some of the deficiencies found by the state were the result of the union’s “sabotage” of certain hospital operations before the state inspection. They had previously said that the union had resented working harder under the new owners.
Twomey alleges that the hospital has failed to provide the union with information regarding inquiries related to the nurse intern program or surveillance cameras, for example.
“When we ask for information they don’t provide it,” said Twomey. According to the union, the hospital made a unilateral change in benefits and working conditions when it launched a nurse intern program and paid registered nurses minimum wage.
According to the MHMC web site, the nurse internship program is for new graduates and registered nurses without hospital-based experience. The program is also offered to registered nurses who have been out of the work force for several years and require an “efresher” for bedside care. Interns receive a certificate of attendance at the completion of the program.
Twomey said that the union was told the nurse interns have licenses, which qualifies them to be part of the union, but they were allegedly denied this right.
“It is not clear, then, who is responsible for them,” noted Twomey.
HPAE Policy Director Jeanne Otersen said, “There is no such thing as a nurse intern” and claimed that “it is a title that this hospital has made up.”
Otersen added that an individual who graduates as a nurse and is capable of working in a hospital should get proper orientation, be part of the union, and get paid accordingly.
The union also filed charges because the hospital allegedly failed to provide information regarding surveillance cameras that were placed throughout the facility. A staff union representative said that he had noticed surveillance monitors set up in the human resources office. While the union could not specify exactly where the cameras were located, they said they were concerned about patient privacy, and whether individuals who monitor the cameras are authorized to do so.
MHMC was also under investigation by the state Department of Labor this year because a draft financial audit revealed that the hospital defaulted on a loan and overdrew a bank account by $1 million in 2011, even though it posted a 10 percent profit and paid its investors $8.4 million.
“We get complaints virtually every pay period,” said Carlton Levine, union staff representative. “The hospital keeps saying that the bank doesn’t know how to handle paychecks.”
Levine noted that the most recent complaint regarding bounced checks was filed by the union with the State Department of Labor as of last week.
According to the HPAE, the hospital has not made its annual financial report to the state.
Senate President Steve Sweeney, Sen. Joseph Vitale, and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg all issued statements in support of the union.
“It is time for the Department of Health to recognize that the hospital is struggling,” said Vitale in a prepared statement.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.