Nurse Strike Drags on at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey

Gayle Morris, MSN
Updated September 19, 2023
Edited by
    New Jersey nursing strike centers on lower staff-to-patient ratios. Sen. Bernie Sanders stands in support of striking nurses, who have lost their benefits.
    New Brunswick skyline along riverCredit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
    • On July 24, 1,700 nurses from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey went on strike, asking for better nurse-to-patient ratios and increased pay.
    • The two sides returned to the bargaining table recently, but concrete progress remains uncertain.
    • Sen. Bernie Sanders has expressed strong support for the nurses working conditions and equitable pay.

    From writers to autoworkers, American workers are taking to the front lines to protest working conditions. Nurse strikes unfolding across the country — and, in some cases, yielding real results — are very much a part of this national trend.One of the nation’s largest nursing strikes begain August 4, when approximately 1,700 nurses at Robert Wood Johnson University (RWJU) Hospital in Brunswick, New Jersey walked off the job after their collective contract expired. On September 1, those nurses lost their medical benefits as negotiations had come to a standstill and the hospital had hired temporary staff to keep the doors open.

    In an encouraging sign, the two sides recently returned to the bargaining table, but it is unclear what, if any, progress will occur.

    Judy Danella, a staff nurse at the hospital for 28 years and president of United Steelworkers Local 4-200, representing RWJUH nurses, told the New Jersey Monitor that negotiations, which began in April, showed no signs of major progress.

    “We’re not 100 miles apart. We might be a yard apart instead of the entire football field. Somebody has to bridge the gap. Somebody has to bring the sides together. I think people look to Murphy as the governor, because he did step into the Rutgers strike,” Danella said.

    At issue are higher staffing levels and better nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, higher pay, and better benefits. Union leaders previously called on New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to intervene, hoping he could end the strike as he did with a Rutgers University faculty strike in spring.

    New Jersey Nursing Strike: Both Sides of the Issue

    On September 1, RWJU Hospital staff lost their medical benefits. The nurses can purchase a basic health insurance plan from the union, and the rest may have to purchase COBRA.

    “RWJUH has remained steadfast from the very beginning in its desire to reach a resolution as soon as possible with USW 4-200, the union representing our nurses, and did everything it could to avert a strike,” according to a statement from hospital spokesperson Wendy Gottsegen. “We remain deeply concerned about the impact the union’s prolonged strike is having on our nurses and their families. We hope the union shares our objective to return to the negotiating table with the goal of ending this strike immediately.”

    According to Gottsegen, said the hospital did everything it could to avoid a nurse strike.

    “The hospital agreed to and signed a memorandum of agreement on July 13, which included the union’s core staffing proposal and compensation settlement. The union leaders signed it and agreed to recommend the MOA to its membership but did not. It was voted down by the nurses and a notice to strike was presented to the hospital,” Gottsegen stated.

    As the strike wore on, hospital contracted with an outside agency to bring in 800 nurses to fill the staffing gap. The high staff-to-patient ratio has taken its toll on new nursing staff entering RWJU Hospital. Kelsey Khan experienced nurse burnout and left bedside nursing after only one year to transfer to the operating room, where she found her stress level was lower.

    “Many nurses are running from the bedside within our first year because we’re so burned out,” said Khan, who’s been a registered nurse for two years. “I lasted one year, and I said I couldn’t take it anymore. And I did not want to leave — I love bedside nursing.”

    Danella, speaking with My Central Jersey, outlined the details of the staffing ratios they are requesting.

    Current Status

    • Critical care: 1-to-3
    • Chemotherapy: 1-to-6
    • Emergency: 1-to-8, 9, or 10

    Requested Status

    • Med/Surg: 1-to-5
    • ICU: 1-to-2

    “We gave the last proposal to the hospital on (Aug. 8) and on (Aug. 16) they rejected that, and they never came back with any other proposal. It’s not that we’re that far apart. We just want the safe staffing,” Danella said.

    My Central Jersey reported that, according to Gottsegen, nurses at RWJU Hospital are the highest paid in the state. However, Danella countered with a statement in the New Jersey Monitor stating that colleagues in a town nearby get paid roughly $3 more per hour.

    Bernie Sanders Enters the Fray

    Sen. Bernie Sanders expressed his support for the New Jersey nursing strike as they entered the fourth week in late August. Sanders sent a letter to the hospital President and CEO Mark Manigan, urging the management to “bargain in good faith” and “come to an agreement on a fair contract” that “provides for safe staffing standards, living wages, and affordable and quality health care.”

    “RWJUH nurses report reduced staffing to the point that nurses across the hospital are now caring for unsafe numbers of patients. … Rather than agreeing to safe staffing ratios, the hospital’s most recent offer instead effectively penalizes nurses for using the sick time to which they are legally entitled. That is simply unacceptable,” Sanders wrote.

    Sanders’ comments on the nurse strike continued, noting that instead of bargaining in good faith, he was told the hospital was paying travel nurses $300 per hour, along with hotel and travel expenses.

    “Let’s be clear: if RWJUH can afford to hire these replacement nurses and pay their executives millions each year, they can afford a contract that keeps nurses safe and provides living wages and good benefits,” Sanders wrote in a letter. “These workers have been on the frontlines in our fight against COVID-19 and have risked their lives to save patients under challenging conditions. They deserve better.”