May 20, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – “If we give good care of our kids, we deserve good care too,” certified nursing assistant Françoise Charles says as she takes a break from picketing outside St. Mary’s Hospital for Children in Queens.
Staff at the 97-bed hospital, which takes care of severely disabled children, voted to join 1199SEIU in 2012. Their contract expired last September, but they haven’t gotten a new one yet. So on May 18, they staged a three-hour informational picket outside the hospital, on a quiet upper-middle-class residential block in Bayside. The mostly female pickets, many clad in navy-blue or green scrubs topped with purple Local 1199 baseball caps, sang “Mama, mama, can’t you see, what the boss has done to me,” and chanted “We’re overworked and underpaid” in a similar singsong.
Natalie Fuzaylova, a night-shift certified nursing assistant, lists the workers’ problems as poor benefits, staff shortages, and low wages. They haven’t gotten a raise in four years, “not even a penny,” says Anna Saldana, another night-shift CNA. But “health care is number one,” says Fuzaylova.
“For every single thing, there is a deductible,” says Charles. Registered nurse Ebiuwa Oseki, a Nigerian immigrant who’s worked at St. Mary’s for 23 years, says the health-insurance plan’s copayments and deductibles are so high she can’t afford to pay the bills for her recent knee replacement. Most of the doctors in the plan’s narrow network are in Manhattan or Long Island, hard to reach for people in Brooklyn and Queens, says chef Alex Bermudez, and it’s especially hard for people with children: Seeing a pediatrician costs $30, when it would be $10 or less on 1199’s health plan.
“We’re giving our life here to our children,” says Saldana. “If something goes wrong with us, we can’t take care of them,” Fuzaylova chimes in.
The about 390 workers 1199 represents at St. Mary’s—nurses, service and clerical workers, and the professional and technical workers who joined in April—receive pay and benefits “under scale” for similar jobs in the city, says union executive vice president Steve Kramer. For example, certified nursing assistants there average slightly more than $15 an hour, compared with about $17.50 at other hospitals.
The St. Mary’s workers are willing to take smaller wage increases in exchange for better health care, Kramer says, but management claims it’s “ideologically opposed” to having them enroll in 1199’s health-care system, because it doesn’t want outsiders controlling part of its business. But the hospital’s current health-insurance plan is from an outside company, Kramer adds. “It’s a total contradiction.” The union’s plan, which has only 6% administrative costs, is the best deal the hospital could give workers, he says.
St. Mary’s management did not return phone calls from LaborPress.
The hospital takes care of children with traumatic brain injuries, cerebral palsy, severe respiratory problems, and “all kinds of disabilities you can think of,” says Oseki. It’s supposed to treat patients under 18, she adds, but some stay until they’re 29, because “families don’t want to remove their kids. They are not sure of the care they will get in other facilities.”
“They deserve everything. They’re fantastic. They give 100 percent. We are blessed,” says Debbie Cilento, stopping by to offer support while pushing her 20-year-old daughter in a wheelchair. An 1199 cap protects the young woman’s face from the sun.
“I don’t know why the management does not want to give us a contract,” says Oseki. “They are not appreciating what we are doing. We carry this hospital on our shoulders.”