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Flushing nurses rally for higher wages, larger staff

Flushing Medical Center nurses held a rally outside the facility Tuesday amid a bitter contract dispute that if not settled could lead to a strike and ultimately close the facility.

A strike “is not something that we want, but if that is what it takes,” there will be a strike, said Lynn Slitzan, a nurse at the hospital and chairwoman of the New York State Nurses Association, which represents the 407 registered nurses in negotiations with management.

“It they want to go out on strike, we’ll close the hospital,” said Max Sclair, a spokesman for Jamaica Hospital, which owns Flushing Medical Center. “This thing is going to come to a head and it’s going to go bust. They stand to lose and the community stands to lose.”

Nurses, working without a contract since Jan. 1, and hospital management have made almost no progress in their 11 negotiating sessions as major differences remain on salary, benefits, vacation time, and staffing numbers.

The two sides hired a mediator for more talks scheduled later in the week, Slitzan said.

The nurses contend the hospital pays them about 8 percent less than what other medical facilities pay and they are overworked, caring for as many as 25 patients during a shift.

The two sides gave different accounts of the negotiating sessions. Slitzan said hospital management has offered the nurses a 1 to 1.5-percent raise, while Sclair said a 12- to 15-percent salary hike is on the table.

According to Sclair, that would make the starting salary at the facility about $57,000 and some nurses would earn more than $100,000. The hospital would also contribute about $16,000 per nurse for pension and health benefits

“I have a very stubborn group over there,” he said. “The hospital can only support an affordable contract.”

Sclair said the nurses are asking for a 25 percent increase in salary over three years and they already have more vacation and holiday time than most nurses in the city.

Nurses would not discuss specific demands, saying only that they would like their salaries to reflect the pay nurses receive at other city hospitals.

Under the last three-year contract, they had a starting salary of $50,800, which is lower than the average $54,000 entry-level salary for city nurses, Elaine Charpentier, a negotiator at the NYSNA, said last month. They also received an $800 annual raise, not a $1,000 hike in yearly salary most nurses in the city get.

The nurses also maintain they made concessions when the hospital struggled through bankruptcy in the late 1990s and deserve a payback. At that time, they accepted staffing shortages and a freeze on salaries for two years.

Now they want the salary increases they gave up in the late 1990s, on top of raises.

Without a boost in salary, Flushing Medical Center will not be able to attract more nurses to alleviate the current staffing shortage either, Slitzan said.

The nurses contend a shortage is jeopardizing patient safety as nurses are forced to care for a larger number of patients at a time. When a nurse has to attend to more than six patients per shift it compromises patient care.

“We want to establish safe staffing patterns so the Flushing community can get the excellent care it deserves,” said Slitzan.

The hospital has tried to alleviate the staffing shortage by shuttling nurses from areas with few patients to busy sections, which can be dangerous because a nurse may not be familiar with all units.

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

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