More than 1,500 nurses at two Jersey Shore hospitals have authorized plans to go on strike or take a job action if their union cannot reach an agreement with hospital management.

The union, the Health Professionals and Allied Employees, say the heart of the dispute involves personal protective equipment. The union wants Jersey Shore University Medical Center and Southern Ocean Medical Center to adopt certain standards to prepare for an anticipate second wave of coronavirus cases later this year and to have nurses involved with ordering and reviewing supplies of protective equipment such as gowns, masks and gloves.

Jersey Shore University Medical Center, meanwhile, is being investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after the union complained about a shortage of protective equipment and lack of training on the proper use of N95 respirator masks.

Hackensack Meridian Health, which owns the two hospitals, said Saturday that it is not unusual for this union to take a strike vote during contract negotiations and that management continues to "negotiate in good faith to reach a new contract." The current agreement expires May 31.

"We would prefer to settle these negotiations without unecessary disputes or delays," the hospital system said in written statement. "Should HPAE choose otherwise, we have a comprehensive strike contingency plan so our patients will continue to receive the safe, quality care they expect from Hackensack Meridian Health."

Union president Debbie White said nurses "had a desperate need" for the protective equipment.

"Adding insult to injury, while many of them got sick and some died, employers were disciplining healthcare workers for persisting in discussing their safety concerns on the job," White said.

The union has called for contractually obligated weekly meetings with management to review available stock of supplies, staffing, fit-testing for protective equipment and plans for when a nurse does not have protective equipment that fits.

"We are fighting for this because we want our healthcare workers to have the ability to collaborate with management over supplies in any future pandemic, including a potential resurgence of the one we are currently having," White said.

The union said it won a ruling in its favor last month from the National Labor Relations Board over discipline and termination of union members who complained about lack of protective equipment.

The hospital system has said that is scoured the world to find supplies of personal protective equipment, was the first hospital system in the state to require masks on everybody, and that staff is continually trained and provided with updated guidelines on the proper fitting and use of protective equipment.

The pandemic has also become a labor issue for unionized workers in other sectors of the healthcare industry. The union 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East said Friday that some nursing homes in the state have been requiring workers to pay for their own coronavirus testing if they don't have health insurance.

The union said many nursing home workers go without employer-provided health insurance because they are not paid enough to afford it.

The state Department of Health last week required testing for every resident and worker of all nursing homes, which have lost anywhere from 4,700 to 5,600 residents and staff to COVID-19 deaths. The 1199SEIU said nursing homes should provide the testing free of charge to workers.

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Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email

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