Members of the New York State Nurses Association at St....

Members of the New York State Nurses Association at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson delivered a petition calling for “fair and equitable” pay. Credit: NYSNA

Nurses at St. Charles Hospital are voting on whether to take the first step toward a potential strike, union leaders said Tuesday.

The nearly 300 nurses at the Port Jefferson hospital are taking a strike authorization vote from Tuesday through Thursday, the New York State Nurses Association said. The union expects to announce the results Friday. If approved, the measure allows the nurses to give a 10-day notice if they decide to call for a strike.

The vote comes as nurses in the New York region and elsewhere contend in union negotiations that they are coping with unsafe conditions such as high patient-to-nurse ratios.

The St. Charles nurses’ contract expired March 31. In negotiations, NYSNA is advocating for a faster arbitration process when agreed-upon patient-to-nurse ratios are exceeded, as well as salary increases of 9%, 8% and 7% over three years, the union said.

“We want to make sure that when patients come here, they have … the best possible experience they can have, and patient safety is maintained at all times,” said Robert Barone, 59, of Yaphank, a critical-care nurse and president of NYSNA’s executive committee at the 243-bed hospital. The nurses also seek pay increases that would help recruit and retain nurses, he said.

In a statement, Rockville Centre-based Catholic Health said that in 10 bargaining sessions with NYSNA, St. Charles “has made significant offers on wages, staffing and other important topics.” The hospital “remains committed to meeting with NYSNA, continuing to bargain in good faith and achieving a fair contract,” Catholic Health said.

Barone said the previous contract called for each nurse to care for two patients in critical care units and six patients in medical/surgical units. However, the hospital sometimes assigns nurses to care for three or four critical care patients, and eight or nine medical/surgical patients, Barone said.

Even though nurses skip lunch and other breaks, Barone said, “there are times where you can't always maintain safety.”

Barone also said salary increases would help St. Charles' nurses catch up with their peers. The starting salary for a registered nurse at St. Charles is about $90,000, roughly $5,000 to $10,000 less than at nearby institutions, he said.

When the union conducted a survey on May 15 to gauge support for a strike authorization at St. Charles, 270 nurses answered “yes,” 4 answered “no” and 13 could not be reached, NYSNA said.

On May 9, 110 nurses gathered at the hospital to deliver a petition to the hospital’s president, James O’Connor, Barone said. Four years ago, during the previous contract negotiations, 15 to 20 nurses turned out for a similar gathering, he said. The increased turnout demonstrates the “frustration” of the nurses and their determination to get a better contract, he said.

NYSNA is New York’s largest nurses' union, with more than 42,000 members. The union represents nurses at St. Joseph Hospital in Bethpage, where nurses signed a new contract in April with wage increases of 6%, 6% and 5% over three years, and at St. Catherine of Siena Hospital in Smithtown, where the nurses' contract will expire July 31.

In February, nurses at Northwell Health’s South Shore University Hospital in Bay Shore voted to approve a new contract that raised their salaries nearly 19% over three years and expedited arbitration of staffing disputes, three days before they were set to begin a strike. In January, nurses at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside voted to join NYSNA.

Those actions came after a three-day nursing strike by NYSNA nurses at Mount Sinai Hospital and Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.

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