Failing New York’s essential workers: We deserve a fair contract

August 25, 2021


From the start of the pandemic early last year, we and other health-care workers across the state sacrificed our health — and risked our lives — to care for nearly 2.25 million New Yorkers who contracted COVID-19 statewide and to tend to the more than 53,000 who died. More than 1 million of those cases were in New York City, which logged nearly 38,000 deaths.

We worked every day in hospitals and nursing homes — often without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). In the early days, last spring and summer, some of our 1199SEIU colleagues had to wear garbage bags because there were not enough gowns. Some of us had to use N95 masks for as long as a week, when they are supposed to be changed at least once a day, and protective gloves were in short supply.

Our labs were short-staffed even before the pandemic hit, and while it was good news that people were getting tested, there were not enough of us to check them and get results to people quickly. Many of our colleagues experienced burnout from exhaustion and from the enormity of the toll the virus took. Some nurses had to work around the clock to keep up with the flow of patients.

While millions of New Yorkers were urged to stay safe at home, we reported to our jobs every single day where we treated seriously ill and dying women and men and held the hands, iPads and smartphones of COVID-positive patients while they said their goodbyes to family, virtually. Some of our colleagues got sick, some were hospitalized, some died. Some are still sick. Some of us didn’t see our families for months, yet we all showed up to work and did double shifts and more.

New York was the epicenter of the COVID pandemic and hundreds of New Yorkers were dying every day during the height of it. We made those sacrifices at the risk or our health and the health of our families because we are healthcare workers and that is what we do. And we continue to make those sacrifices as the number of COVID-19 cases rises again due to the even more contagious delta variant.

But our contract with the League of Voluntary Hospitals and Homes (LVHH) covering some 90 non-profit medical centers, hospitals and nursing homes expires at the end of September, and League negotiators are dragging their feet, refusing after five bargaining sessions to even respond to most of our proposals, from wages to hirings and benefits. They received our proposals in mid-July and have yet to respond in a meaningful way.

We are frustrated that they are not listening to us, and instead are citing what they call the “grim” financial realities they face. We know grim realities because we faced them every day over the last 18 months. Our dedication kept those facilities open and saved tens of thousands of lives while the virus raged out of control.

That’s why we will be doing large-scale informational picketing at a number of facilities this Thursday to make our voices heard and to remind the League and our employers that we don’t need banners or parades. We simply deserve a fair contract.

During the early days of the pandemic, the League called us heroes, with many institutions placing “Heroes Work Here” banners outside their facilities. They bought billboard ads and made TV commercials, lauding us for our selfless service. But now, instead of showing their gratitude by negotiating a fair contract, they say they don’t have the money and are blaming workers, New York State, insurance companies and even the IRS for their situation.

Instead of giving us the raises we rightly deserve, they want to use more agency workers, more per diems, and institute an escape clause that would release them from their financial responsibility. These tactics are an undisguised attempt to replace us and weaken our union, which would result in a steep drop in quality care. No one can afford that.

As the threat of another surge looms here and across the country, it is imperative that we work out a contract that is fair to those of us whose selfless dedication helps save lives.

Collins is a lab technician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Wright is a registered nurse at Brookdale Hospital.