New York state nurses union files three lawsuits alleging poor Covid-19 working conditions

Former emergency room nurse Molly Lixey made a video to demonstrate how easy it is to cross-contaminate while you wear gloves.

Posted: Apr 28, 2020 9:20 PM
Updated: Apr 28, 2020 9:20 PM

The New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) filed three lawsuits Monday challenging the "failures" of the New York State Department of Health (DOH) and two New York hospitals, Montefiore Medical Center and Westchester Medical Center, alleging the entities aren't doing enough to protect nurses treating Covid-19 patients.

All three suits allege shortcomings such as inadequate personal protective equipment, a lack of training for registered nurses redeployed from hospital units to meet the staffing needed to treat the high number of Covid-19 patients and unsafe working conditions for high-risk employees.

"More than seven in ten of our nurses are reporting exposure to Covid-19 and most are still untested. These lawsuits were filed to protect our nurses, our patients and our communities from grossly inadequate and negligent protections," NYSNA Executive Director Pat Kane said in a news release. "We cannot allow these dangerous practices to continue."

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The New York State Nurses Association has 42,000 members, according to the court documents. So far nearly 1,000 union members have tested positive, including at least 150 at Montefiore, according to the filing.

At least 84 nurses in the union have been hospitalized with the virus, and at least six nurses are known to have died from the virus after contracting Covid-19 while working, court documents say.

Suit seeks injunction against New York State Department of Health

In a lawsuit filed against the New York State Department of Health, the nurses union requested an injunction from the New York Supreme Court ​alleging multiple failures to protect the health of nurses, patients and the public.

The suit seeks to enforce Gov. ​Andrew Cuomo's April 13 "directive" that each direct care nurse be given at least one N95 respirator daily. The suit also cites a Department of Health advisory that spells out conditions that would allow health care personnel to return to work seven days after the onset of Covid-19 symptoms.

The suit is asking the Department of Health to rescind that advisory and issue a new one.

"The DOH's dereliction of its statutory charge has created a public nuisance, as New York's hospitals have turned into petri dishes where the virus is allowed to spread, unchecked by basic protective equipment and measures," attorneys for the union said in a memorandum of law in support of a temporary injunction and temporary restraining order.

The lawsuit asks the court to issue a preliminary injunction directing the department of health to rescind all directives instructing hospitals to require sick nurses to return from quarantine in less than 14 days if they still are symptomatic and order ​the department to fulfill its statutory mandate to ensure that nurses have adequate protective equipment and other appropriate safety measures to protect them from contracting Covid-19.

Jonah Bruno, the director of communications for the New York State Department of Health, declined to comment on the pending litigation.

"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," Bruno said in a statement to CNN. "The State of New York continues to take every step necessary to ensure that health care workers, particularly those who are sampling and providing direct care, have the support and supplies needed to address this unprecedented public health emergency."​

Suit says nurses at Montefiore Medical Center not given enough PPE

A complaint filed by the Nurses Association in federal court for the Southern District of New York says the union is bringing a lawsuit on behalf of ​the approximately 3,000 nurses it represents at the Montefiore Medical Center, alleging the nurses are facing workplace hazards that are causing or are likely to cause "imminent death or serious physical harm" as they work to treat patients during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The suit alleges the hospital system is not providing enough personal protective equipment like masks, inadequate Covid-19 testing, and ​is requiring nurses who have been given isolation orders to use their own paid time off, rather than what they describe as the state-mandated paid leave.

They also say Montefiore is requiring nurses to return to work after seven, rather than 14, days of quarantine.

"Right now, the Hospital is like a war zone," the suit alleges. "The RNs there are treating large numbers of very sick and frightened patients, and are doing so with inadequate and often ill-fitting equipment, often in rooms that have not been properly converted to deal with Covid-19 patients, often working while they are sick because they have been forced back to work too early, often in practice areas where they have never been trained, and generally without adequate testing to ensure they are fit to work without infecting others."

"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," a Montefiore spokesperson told CNN.

The suit asks for relief from the court, since the union and hospital are currently in arbitration, and by the time any decisions are made "it will be too late to remedy the harms" caused by the hospital system.

The suit asks for the hospital to provide an adequate number of protective masks like N-95 respirators that are not re-used day after day, nonpermeable gowns and negative pressure rooms so that disease-infected air doesn't linger, or air filters to cleanse the air of particles of the virus.

The suit also asks for the hospital system to provide leave for nurses so that they are not forced to work while sick with Covid-19 symptoms, as well as coronavirus testing on demand for nurses.

Westchester Medical Center calls suit "a distraction"

A lawsuit filed against the corporation that runs the Westchester Medical Center on behalf of 1,600 registered nurses who work there claims the nurses are experiencing "severe and pervasive workplace hazards that are causing or are likely to cause the ​nurses​ imminent death or serious physical harm."

NYSNA met with WMC officials January 28 to discuss preparedness measures, according to the filing.

The lawsuit alleges that in that meeting WMC officials ​"assured NYSNA that they were making all necessary plans to prepare for the virus." The nurses are sent into the "war zone" without adequate resources, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit details complaints from nurses at the hospital alleging the hospital is rationing N-95 masks and gowns, failing to properly train nurses redeployed to other departments and in some units failing to properly ventilate Covid-19 patient areas to minimize exposure risk.

The lawsuit also claims WMC officials have refused to reassign pregnant nurses to units that do not treat Covid-19 patients, unless the pregnancy has entered the third trimester.

The suit alleges the hospital system is not providing enough personal protective equipment such as masks​, provides inadequate Covid-19 testing and grants ​insufficient sick days for nurses to recover after getting sick with the contagious virus.

The suit also alleges the hospital system required nurses to use personal sick leave time when they start to experience Covid-19 symptoms. In order to access the emergency sick leave guaranteed under New York law, ​the lawsuit claims the hospital requires nurses to obtain an individual order from their county's department of health.

A spokesperson for the hospital said they cannot comment on pending litigation, but said the allegations are wrong.

"We know, and our care providers know, that the allegations in NYSNA's lawsuit are wrong," ​the spokesperson for Westchester Medical Center Health Network said in a statement to CNN. "Our focus is, and has always been, protecting our workforce, which has been aligned from the outset in treating the most severely ill patients battling Covid-19. 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 union asks the court in the lawsuit to issue a declaration that Westchester Medical Center is violating state labor law and compel the hospital to address the concerns. The lawsuit also asks the court to compel the hospital to stop refusing statutory medical leave and allow union members to freely speak to the media.

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