Nurses Union Sues Two Hospitals and New York Health Department

April 6, 2020. Nurses protest lack of protective equipment for working with COVID-19 patients in front of Harlem Hospital. © 2020 Thomson Reuters

The New York State Nurses Association, the state’s nurses’ union, sued the New York State’s Department of Health and two medical centers Monday over working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The union filed three lawsuits—against New York’s Department of Health, Montefiore Medical Center, and Westchester Medical Center.  A press release issued by the union states the suit against Montefiore was filed on behalf of 3,000 nurses and the one against Westchester Medical Center on behalf of 1,600 nurses.  

All three suits were filed as injunction actions. An injunction seeks to remedy an issue through the courts, and the injunctions filed by the nurses’ union seek adequate protection and support for nurses treating COVID patients. According to the union’s press release, the union charges the state department of health “for multiple failures to protect the health of nurses, patients and the public.”  The injunction also seeks to enforce Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s April 13 directive to hospitals to give each direct care nurse at least one N95 mask every day.

April 6, 2020. Nurses protest lack of protective equipment for working with COVID-19 patients in front of Harlem Hospital. © 2020 Thomson Reuters

The injunctions, according to the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), also address the lack of impermeable gowns and other PPE (protective equipment) to cover nurses, lack of proper training of redeployed nurses, and  “inadequate provision of safe working conditions for high-risk employees, including pregnant RNs.”

“We’re not looking for money,” Carl Ginsburg, the nurses’ union’s director of communication, said to NYCity Lens. “We’re looking for some correction.”

According to Ginsburg, the nurses’ association was not included in any conversations with state health officials concerning the planning and care of COVID-19 patients, as the virus continues to hit New York hard. 

“We don’t have a seat at the table,” said Ginsburg, “so we’ve just become reactive to governments and hospitals.”

The association’s lawsuit against the state health department says that all nurses do not have adequate PPE as the governor has stipulated that they must.  “Whatever the governor may be hearing from local officials, it is simply not true that nurses and other healthcare workers had, or have, sufficient PPE to protect themselves,” NYSNA’s lawyers stated in their injunction brief. 

The lawsuits include at least 12 affidavits from nurses detailing their experiences and concerns. Margaret Brown, a nurse with 30 years of experience,  who has worked at Westchester County Healthcare for the past five years, talked about the lack of availability of protective equipment. “On or around March 19, N95 masks were distributed to my unit,” she says in the affidavit. “However, we were each given only one N95 respirator to use for an entire week, which was to be stored in a brown paper bag which we would store in our individual locker. There were no protocols or procedures for sanitizing the masks between shift.”

Mary-Lynn Boyts, another nurse at Westchester County Healthcare, recalled feeling intimidated when she spoke with the media about her worries. Afterward, she was contacted by a hospital official, who reminded her of the hospital’s media policies. The conversation intimidated her, Boyts said, and she still fears retaliation. 

Montefiore nurse Pamela Brown-Richardson said in her affidavit that she contracted COVID-19 while at work because her employer would not provide protective gear for her even after she treated COVID-19 patients. “My employer did not provide any N95 respirators, even though N95 respirators were available in a locked closet in the clinic. We were also not given impermeable gowns, goggles, or face shields,” she said.

After a week of treating coronavirus patients, Brown-Richardson said she began experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. According to the affidavit, she informed Montefiore of her symptoms but was not given a test as it was reserved for staff with “significant” exposure. Brown-Richardson proceeded to obtain testing on her own and tested positive for COVID-19, as did the nurse practitioner that worked alongside her. She said she was told by Montefiore to return to work after seven days, only three of which would be considered sick time and the rest were to be taken from her “sick bank.” Brown-Richardson isolated herself at home, but unfortunately spread COVID-19 to her husband, who is now positive.

In response to the lawsuit, Montefiore provided the following statement to NYCity Lens: “NYSNA 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.” 

Ginsburg, NYSNA’s director of communications, challenged the hospitals’ transparency. “What do you achieve by not giving people an honest account of what you have?” asked Ginsburg. 

According to NYSNA, at least 84 of the nurses they represent have been hospitalized due to COVID-19 and at least 954 have tested positive. They report eight deaths of nurses who contracted the virus. 

The New York Department of Health said they could not comment on pending litigation but provided the following statement to NYCity Lens: “We are deeply grateful for the ongoing efforts of New York’s health care workers to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by testing people who may be infected and treating those who are most in need.  The State of New York continues to take every step necessary to ensure that healthcare workers, particularly those who are sampling and providing direct care, have the support and supplies needed to address this unprecedented public health emergency.”

Westchester Medical did not return our request for comment. 

NYSNA expects the New York State Supreme Court to hold its first hearing on the matter in the next seven days.