NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ–On October 27, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders will lead a public hearing in this city in response to the months-long Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) nurses’ strike and its demands for safer staffing.
The hearing is hosted by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), a committee chaired the Brooklyn-born independent politician Sanders.
It will begin at 9 a.m. at the Nicholas Music Center on the Cook-Douglass campus of Rutgers University, and is titled: “Overworked and Undervalued: Is the Severe Hospital Staffing Crisis Endangering the Well-Being of Patients and Nurses?”
The hearing will also be broadcast online on the committee’s website, and the striking nurses have planned a rally set to start at 11:30am, or whenever the hearing finishes.
Sanders, the only Senator who will be in attendance, is attempting to better determine the staffing needs of the RWJ nurses, including its Emergency Room nurses, who are complaining about the ratio of patients to nurses.
The nurses are represented by United Steelworkers (USW) Local 4-200 and approximately 1,750 nurses have been striking since August 4, repeatedly rejecting new labor agreement proposals made by the hospital.
“We met [October 22 with the hospital] and we gave them a proposal, and we are waiting on the hospital’s response. That’s pretty much where we’re at right now,” Judith Danella, a nurse and president of USW Local 4-200, told New Brunswick Today.
“We’ve had probably about five meetings in the past two weeks. I guess it will continue until the proposals get resolved,” she said. “It’s a hard fight, but I guess we’ll see it through.”
It’s not the first strike to reach New Brunswick’s streets this year.
In April, Rutgers professors engaged in a five-day-long strike before finally reaching a tentative agreement with the University.
That strike involved about 9,000 workers which included Rutgers faculty, and graduate student workers regarding issues of fair pay, housing and control over scheduling.
Popularized during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, the modern day labor strike is the refusal to work by a large number of workers in a given organization.
These days, it’s increasingly healthcare providers like nurses taking it to the streets and going out on strike.
After a 3-day strike in January, nurses in New York City at Mount Sinai and Montefiore won historic contracts that include compensation for enforceable penalties.
In another historic moment, the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions announced on October 13 they reached a tentative agreement with their management following the largest healthcare strike in United States history.
The agreement raises all wages by 21% over the span of four years.
But, here in New Brunswick, the RWJUH nurses strike has already lasted nearly three months, with little progress to show after many negotiating sessions.
Danella says the issue here is not about wages or time-off, but rather the nurse-to-patient staffing ratio within the different departments of the hospital, or what she refers to as “safe staffing.”
“Safe staffing is to make sure the nurse doesn’t have over a certain amount of patients,” Danella explained. This is so that “the nurse gives the total care to the patients that they have.”
“If [a nurse has] too many patients then you might not get the care you need….They need more nurses [at RWJ]. There’s a nursing shortage across the country. There is a nursing shortage.”
Danella tells NewBrunswickToday.com that the union is asking for the following ratios:
- medical-surgical floor 1 nurse to 5 patients,
- Intermediate care: 1 to 4 nurses
- Intensive care: 1 to 2 except if patient is critically ill (then it should be one-to-one)
- ER: somewhere around 1 to 4 or 5
- Oncology: 1 to 4
- Fresh Transplants: 1 to 1
- Bone Marrow Transplants 1 to 3
“I believe those would be the key areas,” Danella added.
RWJUH President Alan Lee has issued a public letter which mirrored these numbers and further expressed an overall gratitude for the hospital’s striking nurses.
In a video called “Straight Talk About Nurse Staffing Standards,” RWJUH says it added 200 new R.N. positions since 2022 in order to ensure it is fully-staffed during vacations and call-outs, and is increasing the float pool in certain units.
“RWJUH has worked hard to hire and retain nurses during this time,” the video proudly states.
“The number of open RN positions at RWJUH nearly half of the average vacancy in the U.S. today. We are committed to further reducing it.”
Despite the continuation of the strike, Danella says she is looking forward to talking with Sanders and with the hospital.
Sanders said he’s not only interested in hearing from the nurses and hospital management, but also from Lee and Mark Manigan, the President of RWJBarnabas Health, which owns RWJUH.
Manigan is also a member of the Board of Governors of Rutgers University.
As of October 26, Manigan and Lee are listed as “invited” on the official list of those testifying at the Hub City hearing, while the other five panelists were confirmed.
In a statement released the eve of the hearing, the Senator lamented that Manigan and the other boss, Alan Lee, declined his offer to testify in-person.
“I am disappointed that the executives at the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital system, Mark Manigan and Alan Lee, declined to testify,” Sanders said. “There are a number of questions that I wanted to ask them. I was particularly interested in having them explain to the committee how it happens that they could afford to spend some $90 million on traveling nurses, but somehow could not afford to sign a fair contract with their own nurses to increase patient safety at their nonprofit hospital.
“I was also interested in learning how they could afford to pay their CEO over $17 million in compensation in 2021, but apparently cannot afford to mandate the same safe nurse-patient ratios that have been in place in California for nearly 20 years.”
Sanders also noted that the state’s largest hospital system has been a lucrative business.
“I am also curious to know why nurses are on strike for better nurse-patient ratios at a hospital system that made over $4 billion in revenue over the first six months of this year and over $7.5 billion in revenue last year.
“To my mind,” Sanders continued, “that is more than enough money to treat its nurses and frontline health care workers with the dignity and the respect they deserve.”
The hospital struck back with a spicy statement of their own, dismissing the upcoming hearing as a “taxpayer-funded press event.”
“It’s unconscionable that the Senior Senator from Vermont overtly inserts himself into labor negotiations between a hospital in New Jersey and our nurses—and his public statements today illustrate that true intent,” said RWJUH spokesperson Wendy Gottsegen.
“Mr. Manigan and Mr. Lee submitted comprehensive written testimony that they hope will inform the Committee as it works to understand and address the root cause of labor shortages across healthcare professions, especially in nursing, and the need for greater investments in health care all across this country,” reads Gottsegen’s statement.
“We firmly believe in collective bargaining and that those negotiations should be conducted at the bargaining table—not at a press conference. We look forward to our next session where we will continue to negotiate transparently and in good faith towards reaching a fair and equitable resolution.”
It’s not the first time the Senate HELP Committee examined staffing in healthcare this year. Their jurisdiction encompasses most of the agencies, institutes, and programs under the Department of Health and Human Services, including the FDA, the CDC, the NIH and the Agency for Healthcare Research.
In February, the committee held a hearing on health care workforce shortages in Washington, DC.
In September, Sanders invited nurses from RWJUH to join him in the nation’s capital to discuss their issues and the ongoing strike.
“This country faces a major workforce crisis in healthcare,” Sanders said. “We do not have enough doctors, dentists, mental health practitioners, and pharmacists.”
“Perhaps most disturbingly, we have a major and growing shortage of nurses – the people who are on the frontlines of our healthcare system.”
The strikers have been grateful for the Senator’s support.
“We have been in touch with [Sanders’] team and I think he is very sympathetic to our cause,” Danella told New Brunswick Today.
The last time a nurses’ strike occurred at RWJUH was August 2006 and it lasted approximately 25 days, according to Danella.
Danella and her members say they are holding out for a deal that includes penalties if the hospital is unable to achieve the staffing levels they are promising.
“If they’re not staffed appropriately, if they don’t meet the staffing guidelines, again the only way the guideline is enforceable is if there’s a penalty,” Danella told NJ Spotlight News in a recent interview.
“[T]hat’s what we need — enforceable guidelines with the penalty.”
Molly O'Brien started writing for New Brunswick Today as a freelance reporter in February 2013.
Molly writes stories on government, arts, free events, bilingual events, education and more.
Molly graduated from Rutgers University with a B.A. in French Linguistics and Linguistics, where she also studied Writing and Journalism. Molly also graduated Rutgers Law School.
She is open to any suggestions for stories or tips. You may contact her via text at 732-743-8993.