Updated: Striking Nurses Seek Support From Township Council

NURSES SEEKING HELP – Township resident Erika Colindres, a nurse at RWJ New Brunswick, speaks to the Township Council at the November 13 meeting.

UPDATE: The Township Council unanimously passed the resolution in support of the proposed bills at the November 28 Council meeting.

A contingent of nurses from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital New Brunswick asked the Township Council on November 13 to support a bill that would set minimum staffing standards for hospitals, ambulatory surgical centers and other facilities using nurses.

Known as the “Safe Staffing Bill,” the proposed legislation was introduced last year and is currently before the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee and the Assembly Health Committee.

Among the standards set in the proposed legislation are one registered professional nurse for every five patients on a medical/surgical unit, one registered professional nurse for every four patients in a step down, telemetry, or intermediate care unit, one registered professional nurse for every four patients in an emergency department, one registered professional nurse for every two patients in a critical care service of an emergency department, and one registered professional nurse for every patient in a trauma service of an emergency department.

The legislation also sets nursing staffing standards for behavioral health units, critical care, intensive care, neonatal and burn units, among others.

Staffing is a key reason the 1,700 nurses at RWJ New Brunswick have been out on strike for more than 100 days. The nurses are also calling for a pay raise and a hold on insurance costs.

The nurses who showed up at the Township Council meeting, known as the RWJ Nurses United Community Coalition, came with a proposed resolution supporting the legislation that they’d like the Council to pass and then send out to state Sen. Bob Smith and state Assemblyman Joe Danielsen and Joe Egan.

Among the nurses were two township residents.

“Today marks the 102nd day of our strike, and we are outside the hospital not doing what we love because we want to hold hospital executives accountable when they create an unsafe environment for patients,” Erika Colindres told the Council.

Colindres said she’s been a nurse for only seven years, yet she is considered a senior nurse in the hospital.

“Each day we feel like we’re skating on thin ice and just pray that the ice does not break beneath us,” she said.

Christine Van Beveren, an 18-year nursing veteran, told the Council that under-staffing nurses is dangerous for patients.

“When there are not enough nurses, there is not enough time,” she said. “Time to check your patients, time to make sure they are safe, time to address and help manage their pain, time to hold their hands and comfort them, time to be there when their parents cannot, or when their parents are not allowed to be there.”

“We are not solely asking for more money or better insurance … we are asking for more time with our patients,” she said. “I no longer believe that the hospital on their own will do the right thing. That’s why we’re here, asking for your help.”

The Mayor and Council signaled they were amenable to the nurses’ request.

Mayor Phil Kramer, who is a neurologist, said that he’s “been in awe of nurses for 35 years now. I have great respect for you, and we will look at this (resolution) very seriously.”

“I hear the nurses’ complaints,” Deputy Mayor Ram Anbarasan said. “I certainly understand your situation. My wife was a nurse at RWJ many years ago. She hated working there, and she quit.”

“I understand your situation and the difficulties, and I support your resolution,” he said.

“I come from a family of nurses and doctors from Nigeria,” Councilman Charles Onyejiaka (D-Ward 3) said. “I know what the nurses are going through, I know how they save lives. I support this resolution, whatever you want me to do, I will do it.”

Councilwoman Kimberly Francois (D-At Large) who said she spent three weeks in the RWJ New Brunswick intensive care unit after a brain aneurysm, said that she appreciates “all that nurses do, and the importance of the work that you do. I’m a recipient of that work. I do support this bill.”

“Doctors are absolutely essential, and everybody down to the custodian is important, but … life and death … especially the emotional state of the families, it hinges on you,” Councilman James Vassanella (D-Ward 5) told the nurses. “Disgust and disappointment are the words that come to my mind that the state has not dealt with this significantly decades ago. The idea that you have to be out here petitioning for this is disgusting. It should be a given.”

Township Manager Robert Vornlocker said he supported the nurses after having worked with many of them during his years as a township police officer.

“I have the utmost respect for all that you do,” he said.”

“I think you can see you have a pretty sympathetic crowd here,” Kramer said.

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