TUPPER LAKE — Area nurses and union supporters challenged work conditions and wages for state-employed nurses at Sunmount.

About 200 union marchers circled the Developmental Disabilities Services Office front lawn here Thursday, chanting.

“What do you want? Safe staffing. When do you want it? Now.”

Amid speechmaking, a disturbing picture emerged of a single night nurse working alone to cover 200 people at the facility, which houses developmentally challenged, sometimes violent clients, including 81 men awaiting psychiatric evaluation for trial.

Ed Snow, regional coordinator for Public Employees Federation 242, said the numbers at Sunmount are “not right” for safe staffing and the facility is in crisis mode.

Though the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities agreed to hire four more nurses for Sunmount months ago, he said, the positions remain unfilled.

Wage disparity is a big reason the jobs aren’t taken.

“Nurses are paid 39 percent less here than at a hospital,” he said in an interview.

“The pay rate is stagnant. The average starting salary at Sunmount is about $40,000 with some nurses making up to $52,000 after many years of services. Our nurses are plagued statewide by mandatory overtime,” Snow said, “but nurses in the North Country earn far less then their counterparts downstate.”

Difficult work on a forensic wards at Sunmount, he said, gets just plain dangerous on overtime.

“The workplace potential for violence is a big problem. We need the pay to equal the job.”

PEF Vice President Joe Fox said far too many positions remain unfilled across New York.

“This is not the job they signed up for.”

Bill Crotty, PEF Region 7 coordinator, called the wage system “broken” and said nurses here are being “held hostage.”

Developmental Disability won’t address salaries in a fair and rational way, Crotty said, with nurses in similar positions downstate earning an average $20,000 more.

“The only difference is they live here,” Crotty said.

Several in the crowd described how one nurse works alone to cover a complex of nine houses with 81 residents awaiting evaluation for behavioral issues, all facing criminal charges and held in a “secure” facility not considered a prison.

Wearing a pedometer, they clock 2.5 miles a night running between houses in all weather.

They drive great distances to work from Willsboro, Dannemora, Potsdam and Star Lake with gas expenses calculated upwards of $650 per month.

“We’re here to prove a point,” said Chuck Infantino, a prison teacher who rode one of two charter buses to the rally.

Department of Correctional Services is holding a management conference in Lake Placid this week, and many came to show support for state-employed nurses.

“We want to show management that you need more people to do the job they’re being asked to do. It’s critical for safety. When you’re overworked, you can make mistakes. Now you take it personal and take things home with you, and then you’re doing three times the job.”

Official speeches were punctuated by the shrill sound of whistles blown in unison.

Developmental Disability Deputy Commissioner Steve Smits stepped up to the microphone to say union representatives have made the concerns “forcefully well known” to Commissioner Diana Jones Ritter.

“OMRDD has not escaped the effects of a nationwide staffing shortage of nurses,” he explained.

“We are looking for an effective solution to this problem.”

“What’s your timeline?” a voice yelled from the crowd as Smits handed off the microphone.

Union officials said they would provide transportation to a rally June 10 in Albany.

If they don’t have enough people from the North Country sign up to fill a bus, said PEF official Nancy Wolf, then they’ll rent a limousine.

Email Kim Smith Dedam at kdedam@pressrepublican.com

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