ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — The nurses union at Rochester General Hospital is continuing calls on leadership to settle a fair contract for workers.

It follows an ongoing staffing crisis, where nurses say their needs aren’t being met. This, in addition to the recent debate from lawmakers of a continuation on New York’s vaccine mandate for healthcare workers.

It’s been just over three months since the nurses union and RGH began negotiations.

The hospital says it is committed to working through the issues quickly to reach an agreement. However, some on the nursing staff say otherwise.

A few dozen nurses with Rochester General Hospital — making their voices heard Thursday —

“As we started to lose nurses in a steady trickle at first, probably 10 years ago, it became a hemorrhage,” said Carmen Camillio, who works in the ICU at RGH.

Since proposals were introduced in October, Rochester Regional Health says it has reviewed all of them to determine how those proposals may affect operations, saying the union has not responded to many of the nurses’ asks.

RGH says it hired more than 200 nurses last year and has accepted offers from more than 100 more in 2023.

The hospital system also notes a near five-percent wage increase for all employees late last year. However, concerns still stand. 

“They’re anxiously awaiting results that are not coming fast enough. The morale is slowly decreasing as time goes on. We’re losing hope. People are looking for other jobs. We’re losing nurses every day,” said Abby Rice, a nurse at RGH.

“We need to do better by our patients. That’s what we’re looking to do. So, we hope all of you can help support us in getting a fair contract,” said Colleen Shields, a nurse at RGH.

Meanwhile, it’s been nearly two weeks since a Supreme Court judge decided to strike down the continuation of a vaccine mandate on healthcare workers in New York State.

Since then, the state department of health has expressed its disagreement, saying the state is ‘exploring its options.’

Governor Kathy Hochul was in Rochester earlier this week, and was asked about her stance on the mandate, saying, “It’s a problem, but I don’t think the answer is to have someone who comes in who is sick be exposed to someone who can give them coronavirus. I don’t know that that’s the right answer. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not. “

Rice says she believes RGH could bring back lost staff to the mandate quickly.

“Why are we turning these nurses away if they’re good nurses and in good standing with the hospital? I think we could get a lot of those nurses back because a lot of those people have expressed interest in coming back to RGH,” said Rice.

Congresswoman Claudia Tenney has joined other statelawmakers in a signed letter to the governor supporting the judge’s ruling to outlaw the vaccine mandate.

The state department of health has filed a notice of appeal, however at this time, there is no timeline for any changes. A spokesperson with the DOH adds with ongoing litigation, there will be no further comment.

Read Rochester Regional Health’s full statement below:

“Rochester General Hospital (RGH) and the Rochester Union of Nurses & Allied Professionals (RUNAP) have been actively negotiating for just over three months with the goal of reaching a first collective bargaining agreement. In the 106 days since negotiations first began, the parties have agreed to and met for a total of four negotiating sessions, which were scheduled around the multiple holidays that have taken place since the first session on October 12.

It is important to note that first collective bargaining agreements take an average of 465 days from the beginning of negotiations until a contract is reached and ratified, according to Bloomberg Law. However, RGH is committed to working through the issues as quickly and thoroughly as possible to reach an agreement.

For additional perspective, in typical union negotiations, the parties often begin with “non-economic issues” (such as work rules and scheduling practices) and reach tentative agreements on them before shifting to focus on “economic” issues (such as wages and benefits). In this way, the parties are able to assess the costs of accepting non-economic proposals before assessing economic proposals.

However, in its approach to negotiations with RGH, RUNAP has indicated that they had already presented substantially all of their proposals by the second bargaining session. In response, RGH has been diligently reviewing and assessing each of the union’s proposals, including, running projections to determine how the proposals may impact operations and developing its own proposals or counterproposals to present to the union. To date, RUNAP has not responded to many of RGH’s proposals or counterproposals.

Any union claim that patient care has suffered because of RGH’s actions must be taken with a healthy grain of salt. RGH has an outstanding track record for providing excellent care. The Hospital has been named one of “America’s 50 Best Hospitals” (top 1% of hospitals in the country) by Healthgrades for the past four years, been designated a Magnet hospital from the American Nurses Credentialing Center for four years in a row, the highest honor available for nursing excellence, were ranked as the number one hospital in Rochester by U.S. News & World Report and have received several specialty certifications by national medical accreditors.

The negotiations are playing out against a backdrop of financial challenges for RGH and the entire healthcare industry. For the first time in its history, RGH and RRH lost money in 2022. Nevertheless, RGH recognizes how important it is to attract and retain nurses and other employees. The health system recently implemented a 4-5% wage increase for all employees in late 2022, bringing the average total wage increases given to nursing employees over the past year to 10%.

Despite the economic challenges, RGH has worked hard to keep other employee benefits in check. RGH healthcare premiums remain flat for the past two years and this year RGH added an additional healthcare plan option for employees with lower premium rates. Thanks to these and other efforts, RGH was able to hire 204 new nurses in 2022 and has already secured 131 accepted offers for nurses in 2023.

It is also important to note that, when accounting for both RGH-employed and agency nurses, RGH is seeing an average of 20% RN vacancy across all units, which is on-par with the average 18.3% vacancy rate at other New York State hospitals. However, RGH fully recognizes that more work needs to be done and is committed to the work to recruit and retain nurses and other healthcare employees in a very challenging recruiting environment.

RGH is committed to bargaining in good faith with the goal of reaching a collective bargaining agreement that ensures patients receive the best possible care and that nurses are treated fairly and can do their best work. RGH knows the vitally important role nurses play in making it a well-respected and leading hospital in the State of New York. RGH has the highest respect for its nurses and is extremely grateful for all they do every day to care for patients.”