1,700 RWJ Nurses Hit the Picket Lines, Med Students and Non-Union Nurses Asked to Fill Void

Nurses at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick are officially off the job and on the picket line. It’s the first strike at the 965-bed hospital since 2006.

“We are deeply disappointed that the Union has decided to take this extreme action,” the hospital wrote in a statement.  “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.”

The union representing roughly 1,700 nurses at the hospital, United Steel Workers Local 4-200, notified RWJ of a strike on July 24, giving management the required 10-day notice.

The nurses contract expired on June 30th, and the union has been negotiating for a new contract to include increased staffing and salaries, and a cap on medical insurance costs.

Union President Judy Danella said in a previous statement, “I am a bedside nurse. And many times we’ve seen that the nurses are overloaded on patients. Patients are not getting the care that they need. And we just want to see that they put ratios in. Safe staffing needs to become a reality.”

RWJ says it has offered “a fair” contract including a 7.6% raise in the first year of the deal and an additional 4% for the second and third years. The hospital said based on publicly available salary data,  RWJUH nurses are currently the highest paid in New Jersey.

“RWJUH has done everything it could to avert a strike. We twice accepted the Union’s demands. We offered to go to arbitration or submit to a board of inquiry, and the Union rejected both,” the hospital said in a statement. “Even after we extended a new offer on Wednesday that would have further addressed their staffing concerns, it was met with silence. We are awaiting a response from the Union and are questioning why we are in this position instead of at the table, negotiating.”

Management stated that there is an “extensive contingency plan” which includes contracting with an outside nursing agency and hiring certified and “highly- qualified and trained nursing staff” that could exceed 60 days. But the hospital said that “comes at a cost.”

Dr. Carol Terregino, one of the deans at Rutgers-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, sent a letter last week to students in their second, third and fourth years who work at the hospital, to volunteer to cover four-hour shifts should a strike occur.  The students- who pay $45,000 to $69,000 in yearly tuition at the school- would be unpaid for their fill-in work.  Additionally, the students would not be given credit and would only be given an excused absence should they miss a class. Dr. Terregino stated in the email that the students would only be “answering call bells, checking in on patients and supporting the replacement nursing staff.”

A spokesperson for the hospital said there are no plans to divert patients to nearby Saint Peter’s University Hospital or any of the hospitals in the RWJBarnabas system, such as RWJUH-Somerset or Trinitas Regional Medical Center in Elizabeth.

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