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In Face of National Declines Nurses Unions Look to Expand in South Jersey

Will fewer medical facilities and more for-profit hospitals put the squeeze on RNs in the Garden State?

Kellianne Eyler
RN Kellianne Eyler, who works in the perioperative services area at Inspira Medical Center Woodbury, says joining the union would give nurses a greater voice.

As the number of hospitals shrinks, the number of nurses who belong to a union has decreased accordingly. In just the past five years, the community of unionized nurses has fallen off by 11 percent.

At the same time, New Jersey’s nurses unions have been affected by hospital closures and the shift to for-profit healthcare.

But unions are trying expand the number of facilities they represent, arguing that this will allow nurses to have a larger say in how hospitals operate -- and will also swell the rank of unionized nurses.

Case in point: the nurses at Inspira Medical Center Woodbury, who will be voting on October 1 on whether to unionize. The 425 registered nurses at the hospital, which was known as Underwood-Memorial Hospital prior to its 2012 merger with Inspira Health Network, will vote on whether to join the Health Professionals and Allied Employees union. HPAE represents nurses at Inspira’s other hospitals, in Elmer and Vineland.

Nurses who support unionization said that they would like to have a stronger voice at the hospital, while Inspira executives said they believe the nurses will vote against the unit.

The vote comes at a time that unionization among nurses has been in decline nationally. While the number of registered nurses who are union members tracked the overall rise in the number of nurses for 25 years, climbing from 224,283 in 1983 to 539,283 in 2008, it has since fallen to 480,124 in 2013, according to the Union Membership and Coverage Database.

The number of hospital nurse positions nationally has been under pressure as inpatient stays have decreased and more of healthcare has shifted to outpatient settings. But hospital systems in South Jersey have so far avoided deep cuts in staffing, and union officials argue that efficient use of facilities will maintain the demand for the nurses.

The HPAE, one of two nurses unions in the state alongside JNESO, has grown from 400 members at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center where it was founded in 1974 to roughly 12,000 at 14 hospitals and Rutgers Biomedical and Health Science today, according to HPAE policy and political director Jeanne Otersen.

But the union lost members when Pascack Valley Hospital closed in 2007 and then hospitals in Hudson County reduced their staffs after converting to for-profit status.

The HPAE has been vocal in its opposition to for-profits and has battled with Community Health System Inc., the for-profit owner of Memorial Hospital of Salem County, for four years over whether a 2010 vote by hospital workers to join the union should be recognized. Inspira, however, is nonprofit.

Woodbury registered nurse Kellianne Eyler, who works in the medical center’s perioperative services area, said joining the union would give nurses a greater voice. She has worked at the facility for nine years, seven as an RN.

“I feel it’s important for us to stand together and have a voice to work collaboratively with management to optimize patient care, and I think this is our opportunity to make that happen,” said Eyler, adding that it wasn’t any single issue that led more than 300 nurses to sign a petition to hold the union vote. “I think the goal for us to be able to retain the talented nurses that we have” and to attract more nurses.

Hospital executives released a statement suggesting that a union isn’t needed.

“Our nurses at Woodbury currently provide outstanding patient care,” said the statement, signed by John Graham, Inspira Medical Center Woodbury executive vice president and chief operating officer, and Gina Petrone Mumolie, chief nurse executive and senior vice president of patient services. “This is the result of strong management-nurse relationships and the competitive pay and benefits we provide to retain and educate our nurses.”

While the executives said they didn’t believe that the nurses “need or want the expense of a union at Woodbury,” they said they respected “our nurses’ right to vote to confirm our belief. At Inspira, we support all of our nurses and we want their voices to be heard. We welcome a fair election that will ensure they get that opportunity.”

Eyler, however, expressed confidence that the union would win, considering that more than 300 of the 425 nurses supported holding the vote. She said she hasn’t heard directly from any hospital administrator since the nurses submitted their petition.

Otersen said the union and hospital differed over which nurses are eligible for the vote. Nurses who serve as case managers will participate in the vote, but the hospital may challenge their participation, arguing that they hold supervisory positions, she said.

The union has received support from some elected officials, including Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem), who has also vocally backed the effort in Salem. He said in a statement that the Woodbury nurses “are simply trying to make their working situation better -- that in turn means better care for patients. I can’t see any legitimate reason to argue against that.”

While hospitals have been looking to reduce costs as the number of inpatient visits has declined, Otersen argues that this shouldn’t lead to staff cuts. She noted that hospital systems have been moving more of their services to outpatient clinics and doctors’ practices.

“I think that while this is a challenging time for hospitals and for nurses and other healthcare workers, it also seems to be more important for nurses to organize so that they have a voice,” Otersen said. “It really in some ways is more important than ever to protect patient care.”

She said the Woodbury effort was in part a result of merger between previously unionized South Jersey Healthcare and nonunion Underwood. The combined organization was renamed Inspira last year.

The Woodbury nurses “want to make sure that the community needs at Underwood aren’t lost in a bigger system,” Otersen said.

Otersen added that hospitals in South Jersey continue to see demand for inpatient beds, bucking the national trend.

“We’re not seeing hospitals shrinking we’re seeing them merge and consolidate,” she said. “I think if you want to provide consistency and a good continuum of care, I would say use your hospital better.”

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