Tatiana Mukhtar has been a nurse at University Medical Center for seven years, working in a unit that monitors patients after they’ve left intensive care.

It was the first job she got after graduating from the Charity School of Nursing at Delgado Community College. She said she chose to work at UMC, the region’s safety-net hospital, because it would give her opportunities to attend to the healthcare needs of underserved populations in New Orleans.

“I had flirted with working at Ochsner and other hospitals in the area,” she said. “But what made me pick UMC was seeing the patients that come from all walks of life that don’t get seen at other hospitals.”

Despite her motivation, Mukhtar said she’s thinking of leaving the nursing profession altogether if the nurses at UMC are not able to organize into a union and enter contract negotiations with the hospital. 

“The way nursing is for me now — and for many nurses that I work with — is not sustainable,” she said.

Tatiana Mukhtar, a nurse at University Medical Center New Orleans, is one of the nurses who have filed a formal request with the NLRB to unionize. Credit: Jason Kerzinski / Special to Verite News

She is one of a group of nurses who are trying to form a union at UMC. They filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board earlier this month, seeking to join the National Nurses Organizing Committee, an affiliate of National Nurses United. The group seeks to represent 750 registered nurses at the hospital. Nurses are demanding increased staffing through better pay and benefits, enough supplies to treat patients, a safer workplace and a voice in the hospital’s decision-making process.

LCMC Health has a meeting with NLRB officials on Wednesday to discuss items like who would be covered in a union election and potential dates for it. Asked for comment on the union drive, an LCMC spokesperson said they believe unionizing “is the wrong choice for our hospital and the patients we serve.”

Dozens of the nurses who support the union tried to deliver a separate petition to hospital administrators on Monday that was signed by them and hundreds of their colleagues demanding that management not get in the way of the NLRB union election process by objecting to the petition.

Nurses supporting the union said administrators from LCMC Health, the nonprofit group that runs the publicly owned hospital, refused to accept the petition, instead sending them to the human resources department, which in turn sent them back to the administration. The group ended up taping the petitions to the walls outside of the administrators’ offices.

“The hospital’s already kind of pushing back with different delaying tactics,” said Margaret Tully, a nurse in UMC’s emergency department who is also supporting the unionization drive.

Mukhtar and Tully both said hospital management has not responded to criticism from the nursing staff or included them meaningfully in decision-making processes that relate to their jobs. For several years, nurses have voiced concerns over lack of adequate staffing and supplies, long wait times for patients and workplace violence from patients and their families.

Mukhtar said patients sometimes have to wait 24-48 hours to be seen because of lack of staffing, with some becoming violent toward nurses as a result. Tully said colleagues have had to work longer hours and pick up extra shifts to make sure the hospital is staffed. Once, she said, the hospital didn’t have enough cups to give patients water to drink with their medication.

Healthcare in New Orleans is dominated by two corporations: LCMC Health and Ochsner Health. Both corporations have medical facilities throughout the state. Mukhtar said this has created a “healthcare duopoly” that has affected labor conditions and quality of care for patients for the worse.

Margaret Tully, one of several nurses in the midst of a union drive to become the first unionized hospital in Louisiana. Credit: Jason Kerzinski / Special to Verite News

“They’re making all the business decisions that put profits over patients in the New Orleans area,” she said. “It’s time now for us to have a seat at the table and fight for our health care here to have a voice for us and for our patients.”

Tully said many of her colleagues have either left the profession or chosen to work at nursing homes and assisted living facilities over hospitals because the COVID-19 pandemic magnified existing issues at UMC. Over the span of six years since she started working at UMC, she’s left twice herself, only to come back because she likes the patient population.

But she’s hoping a union will improve working conditions and attract nurses back to the hospital.

“If we are being paid appropriately, we are safe and we know what is being done with our management, then nurses not only will want to come and work at UMC, they’ll stay,” she said.

In addition to long wait times and supply shortages, nurses said that they can only spend 10 minutes each hour with a patient, which often isn’t enough to give them the care they need. Nurses at UMC are hoping that the kinds of changes that can come from having a union will lead to better patient experiences.

“When we have safe staffing, that translates into better and safer patient care,” Mukhtar said. “So both the nurses win and the community wins, and the way for us to get there is to win that election.”

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Veteran journalist Drew Costley (they/them/theirs) is joining Verite News to cover a variety of topics with a focus on health, climate and environmental inequity. Before coming to Verite, they reported...