NYSNA is suing New York State and two of its hospital systems for forcing its members to work in 'war zone' conditions with lack of sufficient protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nurses union sues New York state and and hospitals over lack of protection and 'war zone' conditions

April 22, 2020
by John R. Fischer, Senior Reporter
A group of nurses is taking New York state and two of its hospital systems to court over allegations of placing healthcare workers in "war zone" conditions without sufficient protection.

The New York State Nurses Association filed a suit Monday in the New York County Supreme Court, accusing the empire state’s Department of Health of failing to provide medical professionals with adequate protective equipment and of directing health workers infected with COVID-19 of returning to work sooner than recommended by the state. It also filed the suit against Montefiore Medical Center and Westchester Medical Center on behalf of its members employed at both locations, according to CNBC.

“More than seven in ten of our nurses are reporting exposure to COVID-19 and most are still untested,” NYSNA executive director Pat Kane said in a statement. “These lawsuits were filed to protect our nurses, our patients and our communities from grossly inadequate and negligent protections. We cannot allow these dangerous practices to continue.”

The complaints say at least 150 NYSNA members at Montefiore and 11 at Westchester Medical Center tested positive for COVID-19. The one against Montefiore claims at least eight members statewide have succumbed to the virus, while 84 have been hospitalized, though the union said the true impact is likely greater than reported due to limited testing capacity.

NYSNA describes conditions at both hospitals as “a war zone,” saying that health workers are “without essential tools they need to do their jobs and keep themselves safe.” It alleges that Montefiore and Westchester were unprepared to address the outbreak, put health workers in dangerous environments and failed to supply them with efficient protective equipment like masks and gowns.

“I began experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19, including cough and fever,” Montefiore nurse Pamela Brown-Richardson said in an affidavit. “I reported my symptoms to Montefiore and asked for testing. I was informed that Montefiore would not test me ... I obtained testing on my own ... [and] found out that I tested positive for COVID-19.”

Severe shortages in PPE have plagued clinicians and nurses across the U.S., with many resorting to making their own from everyday supplies to protect themselves from becoming infected.

Such frustrations and lack of protection have incurred criticism from a number of nurses unions, with members of National Nurses United (NNU) gathering outside the White House Tuesday to protest the lack of PPE that it says has left tens of thousands of health care workers nationwide infected with COVID-19. Many have also criticized pressure from hospital systems for exposed workers to continue their jobs.

The pandemic has especially hit New York hard, with the state home to more than 248,431 of the nation’s 766,212 cases, reports CNBC. The New York Department of Health said in a statement that it is “deeply grateful” for the services of its healthcare workers and “continues to take every step necessary to ensure that healthcare workers ... have the support and supplies needed to address this unprecedented public health emergency.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo has called for front-line workers to be given hazard pay in the form of 50% bonuses for their efforts, and has pledged to hold a ticker tape parade for them once the pandemic has subsided, reports Complex.

Montefiore, in a statement, criticized NYSNA for its allegations, saying the organization’s leadership “has chosen to attack a system, and the commitment of thousands of their colleagues, who have followed the governor’s emergency orders and are selflessly doing all they can to fight COVID-19 and save lives.”

Westchester Medical Center also released a statement. “We know, and our care providers know, that the allegations in NYSNA’s lawsuit are wrong. NYSNA’s lawsuit is irresponsible and a distraction from this work, and a disservice to all who are valiantly caring for these patients every day.”

The suit is among the first collective legal actions taken by health workers over the handling of the coronavirus outbreak by hospital administrators and state government.

The suit against Montefiore was filed in Manhattan federal court on behalf of the 3,000 registered NYSNA nurses employed by the system. The one against Westchester Medical Center was filed in Westchester County Supreme Court on behalf of the 1,600 NYSNA members employed by the system.