Amid negotiation gridlock between a hospital and nursing union, newborns are caught in the middle, nurse says


CNN  — 

Crucial union negotiations between Mount Sinai Hospital and the New York State Nurses Association appear to be at a standstill and both parties say the other is refusing to return to the bargaining table.

As the impasse continues between the hospital and union, the most vulnerable patients – newborns in Mount Sinai’s neonatal intensive care unit – are caught between the opposing sides, causing worry among families, one Mount Sinai nurse, who declined to provide her name out of fear of repercussions, told CNN.

With thousands of New York nurses poised to strike early Monday morning, one of Manhattan’s famed hospitals announced Friday it would transport newborns in its intensive care unit to other area hospitals in preparation for the strike.

A Mount Sinai Health System spokesperson confirmed to CNN Friday that neonatal intensive care unit infants would be transferred to other area hospitals because of the strike notice.

“We are seeking a resolution [to the strike.] The impact is great,” the spokesperson told CNN.

A NICU nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital told CNN that families of patients in the unit have been deeply concerned about moving their sick infants from one hospital to another. Moving the babies to a different facility can be “very stressful” for a NICU patient, the nurse said, as well as the parents.

“They’ve asked us all week what’s going to happen to their babies, and what’s going to happen next week,” the nurse said.

“It’s a big journey for a baby who’s never been outside the hospital,” she told CNN. “It’s not anything that we want to happen. We want our babies to stay. We want to be taking care of them. And it’s kind of shocking, and actually a little infuriating, that the hospital is letting it get to this point.”

The more critical the baby’s condition is, the more complicated and riskier a transfer to another hospital becomes, the nurse explained.

“You would need at least a doctor or nurse practitioner, a respiratory therapist if the patient is on respiratory support and a transport nurse to work the pumps and administer medicine if needed,” she said.

The nurses who care for the sick infants often grow close to the families and develop a trusting relationship with them, especially because some babies spend weeks or even months in the NICU, the nurse told CNN.

“They’re comfortable leaving their babies with us when they aren’t able to be there,” she said. “We keep in contact with the families after their babies have gone home – so we really do develop a close bond to these families.”

“We treat our babies in the hospital like they’re our own kids. We’re very protective of them,” she added.

New York State Nurses Association President Nancy Hagans has said the goal of the negotiations is to improve patient care and staffing, get fair wages and to recruit and retain nurses.

Negotiations between the health system and the nurse’s union have been ongoing since September, a Mount Sinai Health System spokesperson told CNN Saturday, but low staffing levels have afflicted the NICU unit for years, the nurse told CNN.

“For over three years now, we’ve been understaffed,” she said.

The number of patients in the unit surges and falls regularly, according to the nurse, but as patient levels rise, staffing levels stay the same. The unit can surge to 64 patients, she said.

“You feel like you’re not actually giving your all to your patients,” she said. “You’re really pulled very thin.”

Paying close attention to infant patients is especially important, according to the nurse, because unlike other patients – even small children – they can’t verbalize pain or discomfort.

“You really have to be on top of their vital signs and general assessment. And when you’re not able to spend as much time as you need to with them, some things do get missed,” she said. “And it’s very unfortunate.”

CNN has reached out to the hospital regarding the nurse’s comments on low staffing.

More than 8,700 nurses are prepared to strike Monday morning if tentative contract agreements are not reached at several hospitals, Hagans, the union president, said at a virtual news conference Saturday morning.

As of Saturday, negotiations across New York’s hospitals were continuing at Montefiore Bronx and the Mount Sinai Morningside and West campuses, according to the nurse’s union.

But the president of the nurse’s union told reporters Saturday the main Mount Sinai Hospital complex left the bargaining table late Thursday and no further bargaining sessions have been scheduled since.

A Mount Sinai Health System spokesperson told CNN that hospital management is “waiting for the union to come back to us” to resume negotiations.

The hospital said it put forth a deal at Thursday evening’s bargaining session was the same one the union agreed to for nurses at the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. Tentative agreements have also been reached with union nurses at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn and Richmond University Medical Center in Staten Island.

Mount Sinai also said it has offered a 19.1% compounded pay raise over three years, which is the same offer other hospital systems in the city have made.

The NICU nurse at Mount Sinai said that nurses in her unit don’t want to strike and are hoping that they can come to an agreement with the hospital before Sunday night.

“It truly breaks our heart having to strike and leave our patients, but unfortunately you have to do some drastic things sometimes,” she told CNN.