Nurses speak about patient safety concerns at Northwell Health in Syosset during a protest Monday, Aug. 29.  Credit: Johnny Milano

More than two years after being hailed as heroes for their work during the COVID-19 crisis, nurses at Syosset Hospital are decrying staffing conditions, arguing that patient care is being sacrificed for profit.

On Monday, about 50 Syosset nurses who have been operating without a contract for nearly a year protested in front of the Jericho Turnpike hospital, calling for wage increases, improved working conditions, affordable retiree health care and increased staffing levels.

Carol Gravely, a registered nurse for 42 years, including the past 24 at Syosset, said the good will built up during the pandemic seems to have faded. "It feels like we went from heroes to zeros," said Gravely who works in the recovery room and is the local bargaining unit secretary for the New York State Nurses Association, which represents 42,000 nurses.

Nurses holding a protest outside of Syosset Hospital.

Nurses holding a protest outside of Syosset Hospital. Credit: /Jennifer S. Altman

Registered nurse and Maria Policastro said the hiring shortages force nurses to spend insufficient time with patients, hurting overall care.

Syosset has nearly 152 full, part-time and per diem nurses on staff — roughly the same as in previous years, a hospital spokeswoman said.

"In the emergency department, we've been super busy. "We've got patients in the hallways," said Policastro, who has worked at Syosset Hospital 22 years. "We have to run to the other units to get stretchers for our patients. We don't have enough staff or space in our emergency department."

Michael Fener, executive director at Syosset Hospital, which is part of Northwell Health, said negotiations with the union have been progressing and an agreement has been reached on a number of issues.

"We've been negotiating for a few months. It's part of the normal process," said Fener, adding that staffing levels are in line with the former contract. "We are hoping to reach an agreement soon … Northwell Health respects the right of NYSNA members to engage in informational picketing. This is not a strike and will not interfere with normal operations."

Fener said the contract negotiations have not affected patient care. "We take excellent care of our patients," he said. "The NYSNA team members do a great job taking care of those patients. We work very well together. Once the contract is done, we'll get back to work."

On Monday, protesters, many on their lunch hour or on their day off, marched in unison outside of the hospital carrying signs reading "Patients over Profits" while chanting "Northwell Hospital. Shame on You."

Larry Wills, a registered nurse at Syosset for 16 years and vice president of the bargaining unit, said the hospital has been resistant toward hiring new nurses just out of school.

"They'll only hire highly experienced nurses and no wonder they're having trouble," Wills said. "Everybody's having trouble getting experienced nurses. There's no way we can fill the pipeline without training nurses and bringing them on board."

Bargaining Unit President Ann Tahaney said there is a ratio of one nurse for every 12 patients in the emergency room, "which is ridiculous … Now, if it's something minor, like I stubbed my toe, that's one thing. But we get every sort of patient. Heart attacks, strokes, etc."

Many nurses, Wills said, forgo their lunch hour or even bathroom breaks to take care of patients because of the staffing shortages.

"If you need care, we're going to provide the care regardless," he said of the negotiations, “and then we're going to talk to Northwell to say, ‘let's make this right.’”

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