IVN News

Ebola Strikes Mask Collective Bargaining Disputes at Some Hospitals

Registered nurses organized strikes across the country on Wednesday to protest care standards in the wake of the Ebola crisis, even as some hospitals wrangled with union members over their pensions, pay, and collective bargaining rights.

National Nurses United, the Maryland-based union responsible for organizing the demonstrations, laid claim to 100,000 nurses joining protests over prevention and care standards nationwide.

“The lack of concern for nurses and patients in a world where corporations have taken over our community health care has been magnified during this deadly Ebola crisis,” NNU Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro said in a statement.

A schedule on the website shows union officials had planned strikes at hospitals and federal offices in 15 states, plus Washington, D.C., with the bulk occurring across California. Three were planned for medical and federal facilities in the nation’s capital, with some 300 protesters and volunteers massing around D.C.-based Providence Hospital over Wednesday morning and fewer than 100 others marching to the White House by late afternoon.

Donna Fleming-Cobey, a registered nurse with Providence Hospital, stood carrying signs and chanting slogans with other protesters at the White House. She said she wanted stipulations in her contract with her employer that would require medical professionals to train nurses.

“We can have more training for Ebola, because no patient should have to suffer because we have unsafe staffing regulations,” she said on Wednesday.

Providence Hospital said in a statement that it was “disappointed” with the 24-hour walkout and that it would rely on contingency plans to stay open for the duration.

Concerns over Safety 

The White House vigil and strikes come on the heels of a deadly Ebola outbreak the World Health Organization said had killed more than 5,000 people worldwide by Wednesday, even as medical and nurse professionals aggressively try to contain a crisis that first erupted in West Africa.

U.S. hospital preparedness and safety protocols fell under scrutiny after Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian foreign national visiting family in Dallas, became the first person to die from the virus in the United States in October. The facility responsible for treating Duncan, Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, later received criticism for initially turning him away — missteps that WFAA 8 reports likely helped attorneys for Duncan’s family members clinch a settlement with the hospital by Wednesday.

Fears about Ebola in the United States deepened when two of the nurses responsible for treating Duncan began to show symptoms consistent with the deadly illness. Their quarantines and the efforts of officials to track contact with the illness grabbed media headlines and helped make concerns about the virus an issue for voters ahead of the midterm elections.

The nurses’ union brought those concerns to bear to their White House vigil on Wednesday. One protester, Fidelis Kweylia, a 38-year-old nurse with Providence Hospital, originally from Cameroon in Central Africa, claimed to have seen cases where nurses fell ill from diseases and conditions other than Ebola as a result of the poor conditions he and others said existed at the facility.

“It is the responsibility of the employer to protect me as an employee if I’m coming to work,” Kweylia said.

In October testimony before the House committee on government and oversight reform, Deborah Burger, co-president for NNU, cited a study she said the union had conducted with roughly 3,000 nurses nationwide in which 85 percent of the respondents said their employers had not adequately prepared them for the threat of an Ebola transmission.

 ‘Unusual’ Timing for Strikes

The nurses’ union organized the strikes even as some facilities like Providence Hospital remained in negotiations with nurse professionals about their pension contributions and collective bargaining rights.

Karol Marciano, a spokesperson for Providence Hospital, said in an interview that it was an “unusual coincidence” that the strike at their facility and White House vigil would take place during hospital negotiations with nurses and staff over their collective bargaining rights.

“It appears that NNU is more interested in furthering their national agenda than reaching an agreement through bargaining that is in the best interest of our hospital nurses,” Marciano added.

Standing alongside protesters at the White House vigil, Fleming-Cobey, a self-described member of the nurses’ negotiations team at Providence Hospital, claimed officials had cited financial reasons and the potential for new legal requirements as reasons why the facility couldn’t require new training measures to help nurses like her prepare for Ebola.

Marciano didn’t respond to an email inquiry about her claims by Wednesday afternoon.

Asked what she expected to encounter when she returns after the strike, Fleming-Cobey replied, “Thumbs up.”

Photo Credit: Ryan Schuette