Nurses forced to work 24-hour shifts as staff crisis deepens

ALBANY – Thousands of nurses and other healthcare professionals in New York City could lose their jobs next week when a state mandate requiring them to be vaccinated against the coronavirus is expected to be enforced, exacerbating a crisis of staff that already plagues many hospitals and long-term care facilities, including group homes for the disabled, where some nurses are forced to work around the clock.

The latest estimates from the state’s health ministry indicate that around 81% of hospital workers have been fully immunized, but many more are refusing or reluctant to be vaccinated, which puts them on a trajectory of collision with the mandate which is due to go into effect on September 27, when these workers must have at least one vaccine against COVID-19.

In facilities run by the State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, some nurses are required to work three shifts (approximately 24 hours) to care for residents, according to internal OPWDD correspondence obtained. by the Times Union.

As with all areas of human services nationwide, COVID-19 has had a significant impact on an already reduced number of nurses and direct support workers available and OPWDD is playing an active role with our service providers. to find solutions to manpower issues faced by our field, “the agency said in a statement.” If necessary, the OPWDD may require nurses to work overtime to provide care to patients. people we serve if there is no other option to ensure safety. “

OPWDD officials said they follow state law when ordering overtime “to provide safe patient care and the OPWDD has exhausted all other avenues.” If an employee is mandated to work 24 hours, agency policy required that the person be given an eight-hour period to sleep after working 16 hours, while other employees provide coverage.

In public hospitals, staffing is also an issue and hundreds of nurses were not vaccinated on Monday, including about 200 at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn and about 100 nurses at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse. Statewide, nearly 20% of hospital workers were not vaccinated against the coronavirus as of Monday, according to data from the state’s health department.

The staff crisis has prompted some hospitals to eliminate elective surgeries and transfer some people in need of medical treatment to other hospitals.

“As the University Hospital of the Upstate continues to provide the best care for our patients, we are proactively taking temporary measures to focus on COVID cases, as well as to safely meet needs. critical care community, ”the hospital said in a statement. “This includes the postponement of some elective surgeries. The upstate is like many other hospitals across the country – balancing staffing issues as we see a growing demand for patient care. Our nurses in particular has worked tirelessly to help patients, and we will support them so they can continue to provide the highest level of care. ”

Nurses in public institutions are represented by the Federation of Public Employees, the state’s second largest union, which filed a petition with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board on Friday, saying it had come to a deadlock in mandate negotiations with governors. Office of Employee Relations. Negotiations began in July after former Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced vaccination mandates for healthcare workers in public hospitals.

Since then, private hospitals and medical practices have also faced a similar mandate for their employees.

The Federation of Public Employees’ file with PERB noted that the initial mandate of the state health ministry included medical and religious exemptions for unvaccinated people to avoid discipline and keep their jobs. Religious exemptions were then abolished by the state, without consulting union groups.

Last week, a federal judge in Utica on Tuesday issued an order temporarily prohibiting employers from applying the state’s vaccination mandate to healthcare workers who requested a religious exemption from receiving the vaccines.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge David N. Hurd came in a case filed against Governor Kathy Hochul, Health Commissioner Howard Zucker and State Attorney General Letitia James on behalf of 17 medical professionals. It should be debated next week.

In this case, the group of plaintiffs is made up primarily of doctors and nurses “who allege that their sincere religious beliefs compel them to refuse the COVID-19 vaccines currently available,” Hurd’s ruling states.

Last week, the head of the Association of State Healthcare Facilities urged the health department to suspend its immunization mandates for healthcare workers, as he said nursing homes and others Assisted living facilities also face critical staff shortages that are expected to worsen when potentially thousands of employees will be terminated if not vaccinated.

Stephen B. Hanse, president of the Health Facilities Association which represents more than 450 nursing and assisted living facilities, said a survey they conducted found that between 86% and 99% of facilities are facing staff shortages, which he described as “alarming”. “

Among those facing staff shortages, nearly 60% said the workforce crisis “was negatively impacting their ability to admit new residents from hospitals and the community.”

Hanse urged Zucker to change the vaccination policy “so that healthcare workers allow, at least temporarily, unvaccinated healthcare workers to continue working as long as they are undergoing regular COVID-19 tests and using all necessary (personal protective equipment). “

Wayne Spence, president of the Federation of State Public Employees, said his union is urging the state to increase salaries for nurses and other health care professionals. He said the situation at the OPWDD is particularly dire.

“The OPWDD is in crisis. And this is a state-sponsored crisis, ”Spence said. “For nearly a decade now, New York has deprived the OPWDD of funding and resources to serve New York’s most vulnerable citizens – all in a misguided effort to stay below the 2% annual spending cap. We are now seeing the drastic impact of these budget decisions. The demand for the services provided by PEF professionals at OPWDD far exceeds the available supply. “

Zucker spokesperson Jill Montag said the department was “aware of potential staffing issues.”

“However, our overriding goal is the protection of patients and residents in our healthcare facilities,” said Montag.

Initially, Cuomo had demanded that workers in public hospitals be vaccinated. On August 16, when announcing the expanded mandate, the governor said 25% of the state’s approximately 450,000 hospital workers were unvaccinated.

At a hearing in the State Senate last week, Theodore Kastner, commissioner of the State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, told a committee that there were many workers at their facilities who also refused to be vaccinated.

“That’s all the reasons you can imagine.… It’s a concern,” Kastner said.

If thousands of medical workers across the state are forced to leave their jobs next week, it will exacerbate a workforce crisis that took shape before the coronavirus pandemic, in part because of low wages and working conditions. difficult.

State officials said they had secured wage increases since 2015 for many workers affected by the mandate and also hope to use federal stimulus funds to provide additional compensation. During negotiations with the governor’s Office of Employee Relations, the PEF discussed granting an additional five days of vacation to any health worker in contact with the public in public facilities who have been vaccinated.

The governor’s administration rejected the idea and, according to the PERB file, has not established a process – including an appeal system – for employees who claim they cannot get the vaccine for reasons religious or medical.

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