Immigrant Nurses Demand Equal Pay—And Win

Samantha Winslow

Management’s argument was that foreign experience was not comparable to U.S. experience. But the underpaid nurses coming forward had something else in common: they were primarily people of color, mainly from India. (Godong/UIG via Getty Images)

This arti­cle was first post­ed by Labor Notes.

It start­ed when a few nurs­es at Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty Hos­pi­tal told stew­ards that they weren’t being paid for their experience.

One of the first to speak up was Jessy Pala­thinkal, who had become a nurse in India in 1990. She got her U.S. nurs­ing license when she moved here in 1995. But when she start­ed work­ing at Tem­ple, her place­ment on the pay scale was as though those five years of nurs­ing nev­er happened.

She asked why. Human Resources told her the hos­pi­tal didn’t count years of expe­ri­ence in for­eign countries.

I was feel­ing a lit­tle bit upset. I had all the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion,” Pala­thinkal said. I thought, Well, that’s not right, but what can I do?’”

What Pala­thinkal did was tell her shop stew­ard. The stew­ard told offi­cers of their union, the Penn­syl­va­nia Asso­ci­a­tion of Staff Nurs­es and Allied Pro­fes­sion­als (PAS­NAP). And the offi­cers start­ed ask­ing around to see whether any­one else was affected.

They put out a call in their month­ly newslet­ter — did any­one else think that their pay was incor­rect for their lev­el of expe­ri­ence? Three more nurs­es had the same complaint.

Four nurs­es joined a class-action griev­ance. Man­age­ment denied it. That’s when union offi­cers decid­ed this was a hos­pi­tal-wide issue.

Dou­ble standard

Management’s argu­ment was that for­eign expe­ri­ence was not com­pa­ra­ble to U.S. expe­ri­ence. But the under­paid nurs­es com­ing for­ward had some­thing else in com­mon: they were pri­mar­i­ly peo­ple of col­or, main­ly from India.

That struck nurse Mary Adam­son as unfair. After all, every­one had met the require­ments to become a reg­is­tered nurse in the U.S. All these peo­ple had to take the test, and they passed it,” said Adam­son, the union’s mem­ber­ship sec­re­tary. They had the knowledge.”

Maybe in H.R. they were think­ing, because India is a third-world coun­try, maybe they don’t want to take my expe­ri­ence,” Pala­thinkal said. I can prove my knowl­edge and skills here, based on my work in India.”

They were chip­ping away at con­tract lan­guage, doing it covert­ly, and tar­get­ing peo­ple that they knew would be afraid to speak up,” Adam­son said.

An attack on the contract

She and oth­er union offi­cers at Tem­ple saw this pat­tern of under­pay­ment as an attack on the con­tract. If mem­bers aren’t vig­i­lant, man­age­ment can under­pay nurs­es in many ways — over­time, shift dif­fer­en­tial, hol­i­day pay. This was no different.

Truth­ful­ly, their expe­ri­ence is just as valu­able as work­ing down the street,” Adam­son said. Health care is health care.”

The offi­cers brought the griev­ance to the bar­gain­ing team, already in con­tract talks. This wasn’t a ques­tion of the dif­fer­ence between nurs­es trained abroad and those trained in the U.S., they argued — the prob­lem was man­age­ment not respect­ing the con­tract. The union’s 20-mem­ber bar­gain­ing team agreed to raise the issue in negotiations.

Although it was noth­ing like 2010, when Tem­ple nurs­es struck for 28 days, the 2016 con­tract cam­paign was vig­or­ous. A hun­dred nurs­es packed into bar­gain­ing ses­sions; 1,000 signed peti­tions for bet­ter staffing. The union threat­ened an infor­ma­tion­al pick­et before win­ning a final con­tract agree­ment that includ­ed a pro­vi­sion spelling out that for­eign nurs­es’ expe­ri­ence should be treat­ed equally.

Mean­while the orig­i­nal griev­ance was head­ed to arbi­tra­tion, but at the last minute, man­age­ment caved and agreed to grant back pay to the orig­i­nal four nurs­es, in addi­tion to bump­ing them up to the right place on the wage scale.

Win­ning clear con­tract lan­guage was a break­through, but the fight wasn’t over yet. That expand­ed the uni­verse” of nurs­es who might be affect­ed, Adam­son said. At mem­ber­ship meet­ings the union found more under­paid nurs­es. Ulti­mate­ly a dozen were brought up to their cor­rect places on the scale.

Rais­ing consciousness

The whole saga was a new expe­ri­ence for Pala­thinkal, who had nev­er worked at a union hos­pi­tal before. At the start, I didn’t have any knowl­edge of what I was sup­posed to do or who was I sup­posed to talk to,” she said. I was think­ing, This is not going to work.’”

But it did. The union stood up for me,” she said.

This griev­ance fight gave union activists a way to get recent hires involved and show them what the union is about. Not every­one has been through a strike,” Adam­son said. We are con­stant­ly try­ing to raise the con­scious­ness of new peo­ple who are com­ing in.”

Many of the affect­ed nurs­es have stayed engaged, sign­ing peti­tions and com­ing to meet­ings. Peo­ple become more aware of, The boss might be cheat­ing me,’” Adam­son said. Any time we get a win, peo­ple are hap­py about it. It rein­forces among the work­ers that we’re watching.”

Saman­tha Winslow writes for Labor Notes.
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