Nurses praise new bills to protect against mandatory overtime, but worry consequences aren’t enough to stop exploitation

“It’s been terrible. We’ve lost nurses because of [mandatory overtime]. We’re going to continue to lose nurses if [these new bills] aren’t held to the fire,” Kozma said. “If anyone could stand inside of a health care worker’s shoes for a day and see what we do … the list is endless.”

With the waivers that exist, hospitals can ask nurses to work several overtime hours on top of long shifts. Allicyn Salato, a registered nurse at Auburn Community Hospital in Cayuga County who has been in the field for 34 years and who is also part of Local 1199 of the SEIU, said she was asked to work until 11 p.m. on top of a 7 a.m.-7 p.m. shift–and then come back early the next morning.

“If you come into work and two nurses call out sick, instead of four patients you have eight. There are no breaks, no time to have coffee, patients are very ill,” said Nancy Hagans, president of the New York State Nursing Association, New York’s largest union for registered nurses with more than 42,000 members. “You hope that every time you’re in that exhausted situation you don’t make a mistake.”

Hagans said the association is pleased that the bills were passed. Nurses from CSEA, New York State United Teachers and other unions echoed the praise in a statement released June 6.

Some nurses, however, worry that the fines, if the bills become laws, won’t be enough to stop hospitals from abusing overtime.

“Anything is better to make them not get away with it anymore,” Salato said. “Hopefully it will be enough, but another part of me thinks it really needs to hurt them in the pocketbook, because if it doesn’t they’re going to keep on doing it.”

Brian Conway, the senior vice president of communications at the Greater New York Hospital Association, which represents more than 250 hospitals and health systems, said the organization takes issue with the stipulation that restrictions on mandatory overtime must be reinstated when a natural disaster or other emergency ends.

“GNYHA is concerned that language preventing employers from declaring an unanticipated staffing emergency for ‘routine staffing needs,’ including absenteeism and sick time–which is very difficult to plan for–is unclear,” Conway said.

M. Beatrice Grause, president of the Healthcare Association of New York State, disagrees with the bills.

“Requiring any health professional to work overtime has been and should remain a last resort. Unfortunately, in New York and across the nation, hospitals and other health providers continue to face a severe health care worker shortage, with no end in sight,” Grause said. “In light of this unprecedented shortage, it does not make sense to financially penalize employers for taking every possible step, including mandatory overtime, to ensure that patients receive the care they need.”

For nurses, being protected from mandatory overtime means a work-life balance might be achievable–and patients will be safer.

“I want to be able to swipe out at the end of the night and make my family the priority,” Kozma said. “You’re going in the next day [from a night shift] and you’re still a little punch drunk. There’s no safety in that. You’re setting nurses up for failure.”

The legislators who supported the bills include Sens. Jessica Ramos, Diane Savino, Robert Jackson, Cordell Cleare, Jamaal T. Bailey and James Gaughran, as well as Assembly members. The bills are now on Gov. Kathy Hochul’s desk. —Jacqueline Neber

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