‘Ask me how long I wait to pee’ — 1,700 central NJ nurses begin strike over staffing levels

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By Dan Sears

Hundreds of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital nurses joined the picket line outside the New Brunswick facility Friday morning to send a clear message to administrators: They’re burned out and need relief.

The unionized nurses are striking for the first time since 2006.

“I’m two years in and I feel like I’ve been doing this for 10 years already,” 31-year-old nurse Jeffrey Martin said. “There’s many nurses that have less than two years experience on my floor that are already planning their exit strategy because they’re so sick and tired of having this many patients.”

The United Steelworkers Local No. 4-200, which represents the 1,700 nurses at the hospital, is demanding it set safer staffing ratios to alleviate nurses from caring for too many patients at once. The union also wants the hospital to freeze workers’ insurance premiums for the length of the three-year contract and increase wages.

Nurses say during an average 12-hour shift, they’re often caring for six patients. RWJ University Hospital is a level one trauma center, meaning it treats the sickest patients in the region, often sent by other hospitals that can’t provide the same level of care.

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“At the most I can spend two hours in the entire day with them and that’s not including my lunch break, if I get one, my bathroom break, if I get one, and the two seconds I get to sip water, if I’m able to,” nurse Kerry Cronin said as she stood on the picket line on Friday.

Hospital spokesperson Wendy Gottsegen said it was disappointing the union had taken “this extreme action.” She said the hospital was open to continuing negotiating in good faith.

“It did not and should not have come to this. This is not a strike of necessity and could have been avoided had the union not been so intent on this outcome. No one benefits from a strike, least of all, our nurses,” she said in a statement.

The nurses’ contract expired in June and both sides have been negotiating since April. Since then, union members have twice rejected contract offers and 96% voted last month to reject the hospital’s offer and go on strike. Gottsegen said the hospital had “twice accepted the union’s demands” and that the union had rejected offers to go to arbitration or submit to a board of inquiry.

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The strike comes amid of wave of health care worker labor actions across the country, but is the first work stoppage by nurses in New Jersey since 350 nurses from St. Michael’s Medical Center in Newark were on strike for 31 days last year.

Nurses nationally have been pushing for better staffing ratios for years. But the demand has taken on greater urgency since the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the ongoing nursing shortage as nurses left the profession or retired.

RWJ University Hospital officials say New Jersey is short about 14,000 nurses.

A fact sheet sent to reporters by the hospital says administrators hired 150 nurses since 2022 and the hospital has the highest staffing levels as well as the highest paid nurses in the state.

The hospital will spend $17.8 million on the contract nurses it hired this week; striking nurses won’t receive any pay or benefits.

On the picket lines, nurses held signs that read “Called heroes, treated like zeroes” and “Think I’ll give up easily? Ask me how long I wait to pee.”

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“Every year our patients are getting sicker and sicker and the devices we’re using to keep them alive are more invasive and complicated to work. They’re adding sicker patients and less nurses and expecting the same outcomes but it’s impossible,” said Nikki Black, 33, who has worked at RWJ University Hospital for 10 years.

The 2006 nurses’ strike lasted four weeks.

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