Striking Nurses Not Hurting for Jobs
December 7, 2001
Randi Stewart is on strike from St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown, but she's got as much work as she can handle. This week alone she expects to do stints at Stony Brook University Hospital, in a patient's home, at a skilled nursing facility and in Southside Hospital in Bay Shore.
"The amount of work out there is amazing," said Stewart, a single mother of three kids and a 22-year veteran who has gotten her jobs through four nurse staffing agencies. "I figured I'd get a little taste of what's out there."
In some ways, the 474 nurses at St. Catherine's couldn't have picked a better time to strike: a nationwide nursing shortage has put registered nurses in such demand that nursing agencies are dropping by the picket line to sign up recruits, offering bonuses for referrals or simply welcoming them and placing them as quickly as they can. Hospitals and other facilities also are hiring the nurses directly.
"Personally, I have talked to at least four of them while I was walking the picket line," said Barbara Crane, the nurse who heads the New York State Nurses Association unit at St. Catherine's. "One guy came with his trunk full of applications and a pen for everyone to fill them out."
While the demand means nurses can pay their bills, it also could drag out the strike because personal finances are less likely to force the nurses to compromise at the bargaining table.
"If your financial obligation is covered then you can stay out as long as it takes," said nurse Vickie Herman, who said she is making more working through an agency than she did at St. Catherine's. "I know my bills are going to be paid."
Jim Wilson, chief executive of St. Catherine's, said he wasn't surprised nurses are working elsewhere during the strike, given the shortage.
"I think it clearly has the potential to cause the strike to go longer than what anyone would like the strike to go," Wilson said. "We're concerned about that."
One reason nurses at Nyack Hospital in Rockland County managed to remain on strike for 151 days in late 1999 through 2000 was because of an abundance of nursing jobs elsewhere, said Mark Genovese, of NYSNA.
Those nurses were striking over some of the same issues as the St. Catherine's nurses, who have been working without a contract since May. In Smithtown, both sides in the negotiations agree that the major sticking points have been mandatory overtime and the nurses' desire to switch to a union-sponsored health plan. With the next bargaining session scheduled for Tuesday,the nurses will have a candlelight vigil in front of the hospital tonight at 7.
Hiring the striking nurses is somewhat of a delicate proposition for nursing agencies. They are struggling to recruit nurses but don't want to be seen as trying to steal them away, since they work with hospitals, including St. Catherine's, at other times. Still, the agencies snatch them up when they get the chance.
"We'd be sitting here and all of a sudden 20 of them came in," said Peter O'Keeffe, vice president of operations for All Care Nursing Service in Melville. "I wouldn't turn them away, that's for sure."
Nurses have come in groups to Stony Brook, said Patricia Gilbert, director of nurse recruitment and retention there. She said she is using the striking nurses only if they come through an agency, to not interfere with the strike. In January, she may hire them directly.
"It would break my heart if St. Catherine's, because of a labor dispute, lost their valuable, wonderful nurses," Gilbert said. "But if the strike goes on for six, seven weeks and nurses want to come and work full time, I'm in the mix. I'm not going to turn them away so they can work at Mather or Brookhaven."
Nurses predict some of them will wind up finding jobs that they will keep, though many, like Stewart, said they prefer to return to St. Catherine's.
Nyack hospital lost about 80 of its 450 nurses by the time its strike was over, Genovese said.
But Wilson said he hopes a fair contract can be negotiated. "We want all of our nurses to come back, every one of them. They are a vital part of what we do here."