September 23, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, N.Y.—Still working under a contract that expired a year ago, staff at St. Mary’s Hospital for Children in Queens picketed outside the building Sept. 21 to demand a decent raise and better health care. “We had a good amount of people,” says environmental assistant Claudette Brown, one of about 50 workers who joined the picket line on their noon-to-12:30 lunch break. “All my department was there.”
The 97-bed hospital, on a quiet upper-middle-class residential block in Bayside, takes care of children and teenagers with severe disabilities, including traumatic brain injuries, cerebral palsy, and major respiratory problems. The about 360 workersrepresented by 1199SEIU since 2012—registered and licensed practical nurses, clerical workers, pharmacists, cleaners and housekeepers, kitchen staff, and respiratory, physical, and occupational therapists—haven’t gotten a raise in four years, and complain that management insists on keeping them in an expensive health-insurance plan.
“We need better health care. We need salary increases. Right now we are below the other hospitals and nursing homes in Queens,” says Brown, a Jamaican immigrant who’s worked cleaning the hospital for 11 years.
Certified nursing assistants at St. Mary’s average slightly more than $15 an hour, compared with about $17.50 at other hospitals, 1199SEIU executive vice president Steve Kramer told LaborPress in May.
The hospital’s management has offered a 2% raise, an amount Brown says “just cannot work in today’s economy,” not with costs rising and many workers the only source of income for their families. It would be barely 30 cents an hour for her, she adds. “We don’t even reach $16.”
Management has also refused to switch workers’ health-insurance plan from Aetna to 1199SEIU’s self-insured and self-administered benefit system. Workers say the Aetna plan has high copayments and deductibles and offers a very limited choice of doctors.
“Oh my God, it has wrecked so many people’s lives,” says Brown, who adds that she didn’t see a doctor when she had chest pains a few weeks ago because she was afraid of how much the bill would be. “We are 1199 members. We should get 1199 health benefits.”
Kramer said in May that the St. Mary’s workers were willing to take smaller wage increases in exchange for better health care, but management told the union it was “ideologically opposed” to letting them join 1199’s system, because it doesn’t want outsiders controlling part of its business—even though their current insurance comes from an outside company.
Many of the staff say working at St. Mary’s is more than just a job. “You want to come inside and see the beauty of how we maintain that place?” Brown asks. “We get attached to these kids. Every single person in that hospital, everything we do is for the welfare of the kids. We love them.
“We just want a decent contract,” she adds.
She says she hopes a deal is reached soon, “but if they don’t do something, we have to keep up the fight. We try to come to an amicable agreement, but management has turned a deaf ear.”