“Every day you walk on eggshells”: Workers vote no confidence in Women and Infants leadership

Members of SEIU 1199 New England accuse management of harassment, racist and misogynistic behavior

By: - March 29, 2023 2:00 am

Jesse Martin, executive vice president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1199 New England, rallies members outside the entrance to Women and Infants Hospital in Providence Tuesday as they list complaints against hospital management. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

PROVIDENCE — The union representing frontline care staff at Womens and Infants Hospital announced Tuesday that 95% of its members voted no confidence in hospital leadership.

The action follows what Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1199 New England said was months of harassment at a press conference outside the building entrance. The union represents 1,900 frontline medical staff including nurses, nursing assistants, therapists, maintenance staff, and more at the hospital. It represents 29,000 total staffers throughout Rhode Island and Connecticut.

“We have a human problem,” Robyn Hamaker, a floating registered nurse working at the hospital for 25 years, said. “I feel like I’m a woman in 1950 getting her first job.

“Every day you walk on eggshells hoping they don’t yell at you, don’t fire you, or something else.”

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1199 New England held public actions against hospital administration twice in recent months. In November, they held an informational picket and a candlelight vigil in December, to bring attention to chronic short staffing.

In a statement, Women and Infants Hospital defended leadership, saying management and medical staff had full confidence in her leadership.

“Care New England executive leadership, the Care New England Board of Trustees and the Women & Infants Medical Executive Committee (elected positions representing all medical staff) have expressed their full confidence in the leadership team at Women & Infants Hospital,” the statement said. “The team is led by President Shannon Sullivan who began her career at Women & Infants Hospital more than 20 years ago as a social worker, and has made outstanding contributions to superior quality and care during her tenure.” 

Kenneth Chen, executive director of the Women and Infants Medical Executive Committee, said it unanimously backs Shannon Sullivan, who became hospital president and CEO in September 2020.

We are confident that this world-renowned hospital, where over 80% of local babies are born, curative treatments for cancers and other maladies of our friends, neighbors and our own families, is living up to its values and mission,” Chen’s emailed statement said. 

“Not only does that mission mean care for patients, it also means care for staff.” 

Short staffing

Chief among their concerns was a staffing crisis, claiming that a staff shortage was leading to mandatory extended hours affecting their personal lives and work. 

“They started imposing staff changes,” Cassandra White, a mother baby nurse, said, pointing to her three children who accompanied her to the picket line. “What does that do? It takes us away from our family and our kids.

“Our management is not listening to us at all,” she said. “They are steamrolling ideas without input from staff.”

Woman and Infants Hospital said there are 83 full-time positions open and there are fewer than five agency traveling nurses currently working.

White said staff can get a call at 2 a.m. with the expectation that they will report to work at 4 a.m. If the staffer does not answer, the crew moves forward short staffed for the shift. 

Regina Brown, a certified nursing assistant in the antenatal care unit who has worked at the hospital for 30 years, said staff used to sign up for shifts ahead of time. Now, they often have to work short staffed due to an inability to find someone to take a shift in time.

 “They are just totally disrespecting and disregarding staff,” Brown said.

We are confident that this world-renowned hospital, where over 80% of local babies are born, curative treatments for cancers and other maladies of our friends, neighbors and our own families, is living up to its values and mission.

– Kenneth Chen, executive director of the Women and Infants Medical Executive Committee

Allegations of harassment, sexism, and racism

Nancy Chandley Adams, a lactation consultant and nurse at the hospital, said that she heard of one manager telling a breastfeeding employee to go outside and pump “before you spray all over.”

“I spend hours a day empowering women who have chosen to breastfeed their babies,” she said. “No one should be spoken to in that kind of demeaning manner, especially at Women and Infants.

Chandley Adams said that when staff inquired as to the status of a complaint to human resources, they were told the proceedings were secret. 

The union also accused a manager in housekeeping of standing over staff and watching them perform their duties. The situation allegedly left a worker so distressed they left work early to go to the emergency room, fearing they were having a heart attack.

Chandley Adams said she believed discrimination motivated by ethnic and racial bias seemed rampant among management, including in housekeeping.

“Our housekeeping department has many workers who are Portuguese,” she said. “Their managers refer to them as ‘The Portuguese Mafia.’ These people are our friends, our neighbors, we work shoulder to shoulder every day. The work they do is critical to health care.

“We don’t get to do our job if they don’t do theirs.”

Women and Infants Hospital did not respond to requests for comment on specific allegations.

In their statement responding to the vote, the hospital said employees are encouraged to report any concerns about their working environment via a 24/7 hotline and web portal which will be investigated by human resources within 10 days. 

We encourage all employees to seek assistance any time they feel unsafe or uncomfortable,” the statement read. 

“We’re hoping that management changes their position,” Hamaker said. “I’m always optimistic things will change. They have to change.”


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