Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Senate hearing on nurse shortage set for Friday at Rutgers

The hearing comes 12 weeks after 1,700 nurses in New Brunswick went on strike for ‘safe staffing’

By: - October 26, 2023 6:15 pm

Sen. Bernie Sanders said Thursday that he asked hospital president Alan Lee and RWJBarnabas Health CEO Mark Manigan to testify, but both declined. (Photo by Ken Coleman)

Nurses from across New Jersey are expected to gather in New Brunswick Friday to show solidarity for striking nurses there and attend a U.S. Senate hearing convened by Sen. Bernie Sanders on the nationwide nursing shortage.

About 1,700 nurses at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital have been striking for 84 days for “safe staffing,” demanding that administrators of the 620-bed hospital commit to mandatory staffing minimums that would require the hospital to schedule one nurse for every one to five patients, depending on the patient’s need.

The two sides met for about 10 hours Sunday but ended talks with no deal, said Renee Bacany, the chief shop steward of United Steelworkers Local 4-200, the union representing the nurses. A federal mediator has not yet scheduled further negotiations.

Sanders (I-Vermont), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, will hold a hearing Friday morning at Rutgers University’s Nicholas Music Center on hospital staffing shortages and their impact on workers and patients. Nurses plan to rally afterward outside the hearing.

Sanders said Thursday that he asked hospital president Alan Lee and RWJBarnabas Health CEO Mark Manigan to testify, but both declined. The senator said he was “disappointed” because “there are a number of questions that I wanted to ask them.”

“I was particularly interested in having them explain to the committee how it happens that they could afford to spend some $90 million on traveling nurses, but somehow could not afford to sign a fair contract with their own nurses to increase patient safety at their nonprofit hospital,” Sanders said in a statement. “I was also interested in learning how they could afford to pay their CEO over $17 million in compensation in 2021, but apparently cannot afford to mandate the same safe nurse-patient ratios that have been in place in California for nearly 20 years.”

As of Tuesday, the hospital actually has spent $103 million on replacement workers since the strike started, according to a letter signed by Lee.

The hospital did submit written testimony that will be part of the hearing’s record, Sanders noted. Manigan also wrote an editorial Thursday for ROI-NJ chronicling the hospital’s successes, with no mention of the nurses or ongoing strike.

Hospital spokeswoman Wendy Gottsegen defended Lee’s and Manigan’s decision not to attend the hearing, saying administrators will “be open to further assisting this Committee once we have a settled contract with our valued nurses and the union representing them.”

“It’s unconscionable that the Senior Senator from Vermont overtly inserts himself into labor negotiations between a hospital in New Jersey and our nurses,” Gottsegen said. “We firmly believe in collective bargaining and that those negotiations should be conducted at the bargaining table — not at a press conference.”

RWJBarnabas Health is the largest health care system in the state and employs the most nurses statewide; its New Brunswick hospital is its biggest.

Five people are scheduled to testify at the Senate hearing, including Local 4-200’s president, Judy Danella, and Patricia Pittman, who heads the Mullan Institute for Health Workforce Equity at The George Washington University.

The hearing comes as nurses nationwide are calling for better staffing practices, pay, and working conditions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the labor shortages it spawned. There have been about 20 health care strikes this year alone, most recently in Washington, where about 1,300 health care workers walked off the job this week over staffing shortages.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.