Nurses across Israel have launched a general strike on Monday after negotiations over their employment terms reached an impasse. The healthcare professionals claim that the agreement that they had reached with the Finance Ministry earlier this year has not been upheld. The deal put an end to the previous nurses' strike in February.
The Treasury called for the immediate resumption of the talks in a last minute effort to head off the strike, but the effort failed. The negotiations were nevertheless expected to continue on Monday.
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"Emergency rooms have turned into war rooms," National Association of Nurses Chairwoman Ilana Cohen said. "We cannot be putting out fires anymore."
Skeleton staff at Sourasky hospital (Photo: Yaron Brenner)
Only a skeleton nursing staff headed to work at public hospitals as the strike went into effect. Outpatient facilities and clinics remained unattended. The nurses further threatened they would stop accommodating "medical tourism that comes at the expense of hospital beds available to the citizens of Israel," according Shaul Zakay, the head of the nurses association at the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv.
"Our profession is facing a serious crisis," he said. "There is an immense nurse shortage, which puts the existing nursing workforce under terrible pressure and undermines the quality of care."
Zakay said he doesn't believe the Finance Ministry will implement the understandings that were reached in February's agreement.
Deserted halls at Yoseftal Medical Center, Eilat (Photo: Meir Ohayon)
"We tend to believe that new nurses won't join the workforce without significant improvements to the employment terms and salary," he said. "The veteran nurses are crushed by the workload. The latest deal that was signed in the beginning of the year went into effect in April and that was supposed to encourage nurses to come work at internal medicine units and emergency rooms, but it failed to solve the problem."
According to Zakay, the nurses announced a labor dispute on November 20 but held off on launching the strike. He accused the Treasury of dragging its feet.
"I don't believe that the Treasury's officials understand the severity of the situation and truly seek a solution," he continued. "I am ashamed to looked at the OECD data that ranks Israel next to last when it comes to the number of nurses per 1,000 people."
'Nurses are exploited'
The nurses claim that the Treasury pledged earlier this year that the negotiations over their collective agreement will begin in September. But the talks have been delayed under a variety or pretexts, even though the contract is set to expire by the end of the year.
'How much is a nurse worth?' Nurses in Eilat (Photo: Meir Ohayon)
"At first they told us to wait until after the holidays, and now they tell us that it's election season," said Cohen of the Association of Nurses. "Meanwhile, the patients are in the halls and the nurses are exploited. But we're not going to take it anymore. We must reach an agreement that will provide a real solution and will put an end to the exploitation of nurses on one hand and stop hurting patients on the other.
"We're launching a strike because agreements must be upheld," she said.
The Finance Ministry, in turn, parried that the strike was uncalled for.
"Even after six and a half hours of talks, the National Association of Nurses insists on launching a strike that isn't legal or justified," it said. The officials added that the nurses were presented with two viable proposals but nevertheless "decided to launch a strike at the expense of patients."
The ministry said that the nurses are bound by a collecting agreement until January 2013, and claimed the protest effort violates the contract. Even so, the Treasury vowed to pursue a solution to the crisis while also "protecting public funds."
"The National Association of Nurses is cynically exploiting the election season," it added. The officials stressed that over the past year many incentives and grants were given to nursing students and nurses working in internal medicine units, noting that the average monthly salary in the field amounted to NIS 15,500 (roughly $4,060), triple the average Israeli wages.
Senior officials within the ministry denied the nurses' claim that the negotiations were grossly delayed.
"These negotiations have been going on for three weeks," one official said.
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