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Flushing nurses closer to strike after slow talks

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Nurses from Flushing Medical Center and the hospital’s management made no progress in last week’s salary and staffing negotiations, increasing the likelihood of a nursing strike at the facility, both sides said.

“We’ve been negotiating for two days and nothing’s come from it,” said Mirian Fitzpatrick, a nurse at the hospital who was involved in the June 11-12 negotiations. “On the employer’s part there’s been minimal movement on negotiations. We’ve made many concessions on our initial proposal and they’re really not negotiating.”

The nurses are asking for a 25 percent increase in salary over three years, according to Max Sclair, a spokesman for Jamaica Hospital, which owns Flushing Medical Center.

“The demands they have on wages we just can’t afford,” said Sclair, who contends “it’s out of line” with the salaries paid to other nurses in the city.

He said the hospital has already agreed to a 12 percent increase in pension contributions and benefits for the nurses. Management has also offered the nurses a 3 percent hike in their salary in the first year of a new contract, another 3 percent the next year, and a 4 percent rise in what would be the final year of the agreement, he said.

Working without a contract since Jan. 1, the nurses maintained the hospital pays them about 8 percent less than their counterparts at other medical facilities and they are overworked, caring for as many as 11 patients during a shift.

When asked if a strike was a possibility, Fitzpatrick said this “could lead to other labor actions.” Before the talks, Elaine Charpentier, a negotiator for the nurses who led them in picketing outside the hospital June 10, said a strike could occur if some of the nurses’ demands were not met.

The two sides will try to iron out their differences at the next round of negotiations, the 10th set of such meetings, scheduled for Friday.

The nurses, who are represented by the New York State Nurses Association, have declined to comment on the specifics of their proposals to management.

Under the last three-year contract, the nurses had a starting salary of $50,800 and got an $800 raise each year, Charpentier said That is lower than the $1,000 hike in yearly salary most nurses in the city get, she said. The nurses are also asking for more vacation and personal days.

The 382 registered nurses at Flushing Medical Center argue that they made sacrifices to the hospital when it was struggling through bankruptcy in the late 1990s and unable to hire an adequate number of workers. They accepted staffing shortages and a freeze on salaries for two years.

Nursing shortages are afflicting hospitals across the country and should not be viewed as exclusive to Flushing. Still, the nurses at the hospital say that the situation at their hospital is worse because new nurses are more likely to go to facilities that pay more.

The nurses contend that when a nurse has to attend to more than six patients per shift, it compromises the care patients receive and jeopardizes their safety. Only a significant amount of hiring could produce a 6-to-1 patient/nurse ratio.

“The night and weekend staff is minimal at best and it takes away from patient care,” Fitzpatrick added.

Reach reporter Brendan Browne by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 155.

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