This next article is written by Mark Genovese, from NYSNA. It will appear in Statewide Report
"Living Outside the 'Comfort Zone' -
St. Catherine's RN Meet the Challenge of Getting on With Life During a Strike
By Mark Genovese
To Gail Gruber, the birth of a grandchild last month was to have been one of the happiest moments of her life. Yet she remembers the event with mixed feelings. This is because the birth was held at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown? the hospital she and 474 of her colleagues have been on strike against since Nov. 26, 2001.
It was difficult for Gruber to walk back into the building and to see replacements doing her job. "Yet, I kept my mouth shut," she said.
But fellow RN Harriet Cogan didn't. When visiting a patient in the hospital, she asked the replacement: "Why are you doing this? Do you go around from strike to strike?" "I go all over," the replacement replied, "and I don't blame the nurses here for going out." The replacement nurse told Cogan: "Our agency contract says we won't have to care for more than 6 patients at one time."
One of the reasons RNs at St. Catherine's are on strike is because the ratio of patients to nurses at St. Catherine's was 12 to 1 and greater. "If this isn't enough to keep you motivated," Cogan asked, "what is?"
"The Bills are Mostly Paid"
The toll the strike at St. Catherine's is taking on the participating nurses is emotional as well as financial. Yet the nurses are finding ways to stay strong.
Like many others, Gruber was pleased to have Christmas and New Year's Day off, having worked the holidays many times in her career. But now the bills are coming in, Gruber said, noting that she had built up some savings over the years. "But I don't see how the young girls can make it."
Four days after the strike started, Diane Rettig's husband lost his job in a layoff. Since then the family has been staggering the bills and "maxing out" the credit cards. Her children found some IOUs in their Christmas stockings, "but they're old enough now to understand," she said.
Randi Stewart, a single parent with 3 children, has already made arrangements with the utility companies. Fortunately they have been sympathetic. "It's a struggle, but the bills are being mostly paid," she aid. She's found temporary work, but it's been inconsistent. The week before she was called to work six days, this week she has only been called to work one. "It's inconvenient to wait by the phone every day for someone to call. But I need a paycheck."
Cogan's children are grown, and she's been covered by her husband's health
insurance. "But you get to depend on having that second salary. So I haven't been using the credit card, paying in cash instead. You see where the money goes." Cogan's family has been through a similar situation before, when her husband was laid off. "We knew we were going to get through then, and we'll get through now."
New Kid On The Block
To walk into a new, temporary job on the first day "was a little scary but exciting," Rettig said. "I hadn't filed a new job application in 26 years." Rettig applied for work with three agencies and found a per-diem job at a nursing home near Port Jefferson, working four nights this week and four the next.
"After being someplace for 21 years, I'm suddenly the new kid on the block," said Vickie Herman. "I didn't know the paperwork, procedures, and routine. It took a full shift to become familiar." Her new coworkers were warm, receptive, and willing to help. "'Oh! Thank God you're here!' They said. They're not on strike, but everybody is running short on staff."
"I started a job yesterday in a nursing home, and it made me miss the job I had!" Gruber said. Instead of two weeks of orientation she was given only four hours. Then she was put on a unit alone, doing tasks she hadn't performed in years. She wound up working one hour overtime, without taking any breaks. A family member told her: "That's not why you're on strike ? so you can be abused at another facility."
The nursing job market hasn't been on the side of Lois Everett, however, because she works in a specialty area. Everett has lost her health insurance because the COBRA payment was astronomical. Her four children will be covered by Child Health Plus, while she is receiving coverage through her husband's health insurance. But it's costing them an additional $500 per month. As a result the family has had to dip into their savings. "I'm always asking myself lately: 'Am I spending too much?'" Everett said.
The uncertainty has also been hard on the children. "As much as we try, they notice that there's been a basic change in our daily routine. They're quiet about it, but it affects them."
Finding Determination Amid Frustration
For many, visiting the picket line and talking with other nurses helps keep life in perspective.
"If I have a bad day, I find I can go the line and talk with the people who are there," Everett said. She also makes it a point to provide support for others. At membership meetings she often asks questions for those on her unit who may feel intimidated about speaking in a group. "People who don't go to the meetings are the ones who weaken first because they have been out of the loop," Everett said. "Your support system is the people who are committed to the union."
"I really try to keep things as normal as possible ? not throw in too many monkey wrenches," Herman said. "And you know what? I'm still going on vacation at the end of February. There's no way St. Catherine's and CHS is going to take away my life."
Rettig, who has been working at St. John's and St. Catherine's for 26 years, is on strike because she fell asleep at the wheel on the way home from working overtime one night about 10 years ago. Her car hit the curb and a telephone pole. Her injuries weren't serious, "but I said: 'I can't do this anymore.'"
"What keeps me going is knowing what nursing was once like," said Cogan, who started as a nurse in 1969. "We were able to take care of our patients. We need to get it back there again." Cogan's son is an RN at Winthrop University Hospital and her daughter is in her first year in nursing school
. "I want them to know their mother is committed to this. I'm doing this for them."
"I'm A Survivor"
The nurses have learned a great deal about themselves the past two months. It has forced many of them out of what they have called their "comfort zone," made them re-evaluate themselves, and tested their strength.
"I've learned I'm a survivor," Gruber said. "I always knew I could do anything." Gruber keeps a Newsday clipping of the first day of the strike, which includes a photo of her with a group of other nurses waving. "We were saying to administration, 'See? We're out here and we're surviving.' Every time I look at it now, I think 'She who laughs last, laughs best.' I laugh a lot, and that's the way you have to look at it."
"I've learned to look at the other side of the coin," said Rettig. "I've had time with my family. I've been able to cook dinner for my family every night. I've had the strength to do things." Rettig said.
"It was awkward to start out going into another hospital but this experience has been a bit of a confidence builder," Stewart said. "I now know I have the skills to go out and get a job anywhere."
"I'm a strong person, and I can take anything from anybody," Herman added.
"If you knock me down it's just a matter of time before I'll get up and you'll see my face again. When you have support from your family and friends who can provide you with insight, you can make it through anything. Just keep your heart strong and your head clear."
"Being on strike is difficult for everyone involved," said Lorraine Seidel, director of NYSNA's Economic & General Welfare program. "It's a test of the spirit that can really push people to their limits. But the St. Catherine's nurses are showing that they are up to the challenge and they're inspiring nurses throughout the nation."
Stand up and take a bow St. Catherine's nurses, you absolutely deserve it.