NEW YORK NURSE: March 2008
by Nancy Webber
More than 85 NYSNA members and staff came to Albany on Feb. 12 to garner support from state legislators for a bill that would correct a long-standing injustice in the City of New York Administrative Code. During a few whirlwind hours at the State Capitol, teams of nurses went to the offices of 42 legislators.
The legislation (S1865-A/A3873-A) would add registered nurse positions to a list of occupations that are considered “physically taxing.” City employees in those positions are allowed to retire with full benefits as early as age 50 after 25 years of service. The measure would affect NYSNA members who work for the city Health and Hospitals Corporation and mayoral agencies.
The HHC nurses had to get up early to make their voices heard at the State Capitol. Buses headed north from the city at dawn and briefings on the legislation were held en route. Nevertheless, RNs were brimming with enthusiasm after their visits with lawmakers.
“It was great!” said Catherine Mayers, a rookie participant and a staff nurse at Harlem Hospital. “I want to come back in April (for NYSNA Lobby Day).” Her feelings were echoed by other first-timers in the group.
Several of the nurses reported that legislators were shocked to hear that nursing was not on the list of “physically taxing” occupations. Lawmakers in both houses indicated they would support the bill. Three nurses from Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx got an immediate response from Assemblymember Carmen Arroyo.
“She is on the board of Lincoln Hospital and has been a patient there,” said RN Sonia Lawrence. “She said the nurses there had saved her life. She picked up the phone while we were in their office and signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill.”
Why isn’t nursing on list of physically taxing professions? Apparently when the list was first established in the 1960s, no one thought that a predominantly female occupation could be physically demanding. Many of the HHC nurses wore red t-shirts to their lobbying visits with the message, “Gender equity in pension rights.”
The group from Elmhurst Hospital got a lot of attention in the halls of the Legislative Office Building, thanks to Aida Bernacet. She wore white scrubs and her starched nurse’s cap. “I’ve always dressed this way since I became a nurse in 1989,” she said. “Everyone was charmed by it,” said James Pomper, the release-time NYSNA representative at Elmhurst.
The “physically taxing” bill is cost-neutral for both the state and City of New York, as eligible nurses will contribute the additional cost of the improved pension. Despite this, it has been criticized by HHC top management, which argues that large numbers of nurses will retire if the law is enacted. The HHC nurses maintain that the pension improvement would help to keep nurses working at city facilities.
“This would give them a tool for recruitment and retention they don’t have now,” Pomper said. Carol Bagnell from Bellevue Hospital Center agreed, alluding to ongoing staffing problems, “It would be great to have more help.”
HHC nurses got a positive reception at the State Capitol, but they also will need support at City Hall. Changing the city code requires both a state law and a home rule message from the City Council. And while the council passed the measure in 2006, it was not brought up for a vote in 2007 while the State Legislature was in session.
To put more pressure on council members, an op-ed by Nancy Kaleda, EGW Program senior associate director, was published in the February 2008 issue of City Hall magazine. She stated, “It’s time for City Council members to act on their principles and send a home rule message to the state legislature. Discrimination shouldn’t tarnish the reputation of the greatest city in the world.”