Nurses protest over contract negotiations with Hackensack Meridian Health

Boueyed by honks of support, hundreds of Jersey Shore University Medical Center nurses picketed Monday, demanding fair contracts from their employer, Hackensack Meridian Health.

The clock is ticking to the end of a contract that’s already been extended twice, but the union says they’re deadlocked with the administration.

“We know our nurses have been through great trauma. The COVID crisis has created one of the most hazardous and difficult situations ever encountered,” said Debbie White, president of the Health Professional and Allied Employees. “One of the things we have advocated for is a seat at the table in pandemic planning. That seems to be a sticking point right now.”

Weingarten heads the national union that represents the nurses. The standoff initially included nurses from Southern Ocean Medical Center, which is also part of the hospital system, but an agreement was reached with them. The two usually negotiate together, but Hackensack Meridian Health claims Jersey Shore broke from the joint discussions and indicated it would not return to the table until Tuesday.

The union said they’re fighting details in the contract like floating nurses, when a nurse is moved to another unit outside his or her specialty.

“Nurses are not interchangeable. If I have a heart attack, I don’t want to come in and be taken care of, not that they’re not great, but I don’t want to come in and be taken care of by a labor and delivery nurse who doesn’t specialize in that. They have not been trained. So it’s the training and education, and the safety to patients,” said White.

“The hospital came to the table and said they want unilateral floating, meaning anyone can go anywhere. At a hosptial this size, the specialties we have, it’s totally inappropriate,” said Adam Witt.

Adam Witt is an emergency department nurse who heads the local union, HPAE Local 5058. He says he was fired recently for representing a nurse in a dispute with the hospital.

“I was representing a union member based on our contract and the hospital’s position was that I didn’t show up to work and it was insubordination,” Witt said.

In a statement, Hackensack said “Witt abandoned his shift. He was terminated because he went AWOL” and that “his first responsibility should have been to the patients.” They also added, “his termination was upheld by the formal appeal process prescribed in our contract with HPAE.”

The union is fighting for his reinstatement. He says he’s fighting for nurses’ contracts.

“We’ve also had systematic issues dating back to April 2019 with our payroll issues, they took away PTO at the end of March during the outbreak. People on leave, people on maternity leave, aren’t getting paid. Zero dollar paychecks. There’s been a myriad of issues going on,” Witt said.

But Hackensack Meridian Health says, “Payroll issues were resolved. In April of 2019, we were integrating our eight legacy systems into one system – an incredibly complex process. Our team worked around the clock to rectify issues as quickly as possible.”

The contract expires Monday night and if a resolution isn’t reached, nurses will be working without a contract.