New York, NY – Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez didn’t plan on becoming a nurse, let alone the president of the New York State Nurses Association, but nonetheless she found herself working in a hospital like both of her parents and further learning the importance being a part of a union.
“Well I think I have a nursing personality, but I was actually an artist,” said Sheridan-Gonzalez. “I studied art and filmmaking, but I got a job a night job as a nurse’s aid to support myself so I can do my art work during the day.”
Despite making some money selling her paintings and acting, she also earned a nursing scholarship to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN) and was a member of Local 144.
“I got a lot of pleasure taking care of people and I was encouraged to stay in the field,” said Sheridan-Gonzalez. “Then there was a registered nursing school, which I got a stipend for from 1199 [SEIU]. I went into nursing by happenstance.”
Sheridan-Gonzalez went to the Helene Fuld College of Nursing (1975) for her LPN and became a registered nursing after graduating from CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College (1980).
Sheridan-Gonzalez grew up in a working class household where her mother was a secretary at a hospital and her father was a messenger at a hospital, but it wasn’t until her mom and dad became union members at 1199 SEIU that her parents earned a better salary.
“I was never hungry, but it was rough,” said Sheridan-Gonzalez, an East Harlem native. ” Once the union was recognized our quality of life improved. Their salary went up and we moved from a tenement apartment into a new apartment that was nicer.”
Before becoming the president of NYSNA or working as a nurse, Sheridan-Gonzalez became a community organizer after leaving art school in Binghamton and learned about community organizing at the Model Cities Program, an initiative that tries to solve the problems of urban poverty.
“It was important to me in my own political development in understanding disparities and then seeing it in healthcare throughout my career,” said Sheridan-Gonzalez. “I was able to fight for workers rights, I had experience for fighting for community rights and it bolstered my abilities as an organizer, as well as a nurse.”
Before COVID-19, Sheridan-Gonzalez used her skills as an organizer at NYSNA after the organization went from being a professional association and later became a union in 2011. In 2013, she became president and the group was active more active in legislation, staffing, pension and social justice issues.
“Nursing salaries were really low when I started in the early 1980s,” said Sheridan-Gonzalez. “I was eligible for WIC at the time.”
Saving hospitals and teaching hospitals from closing, advocating for single-payer health care, steward training, disaster relief, incarceration reform were just a few of the concerns that NYSNA focused on before COVID-19 struck.
In mid-January nurses from Italy and China informed Sheridan-Gonzalez and other nurses about COVID-19.
“When COVID-19 hit, we were already trying to get better regulations through OSHA for safe-patient handling and needleless devices because of SARS and Ebola,” said Sheridan-Gonzalez. “We started to hear reports from Wuhan and Italy and we tried to alert government agencies that we didn’t feel prepared.”
The cutting of hospital resources and beds throughout New York also meant cuts in the storage of personal protective equipment (PPE) before the COVID-19 virus hit the city, according to Sheridan-Gonzalez, an emergency room nurse in the Bronx.
“We were not panicking, but there is nothing wrong with being prepared,” said Sheridan-Gonzalez. “After Ebola, we already had a big fight with the Department of Health about what we were and weren’t getting.”
When Ebola came to the United States in 2014, Sheridan-Gonzalez felt very prepared for the one to two cases that came to Montefiore Medical Center’s way because they mobilized in preparation for the virus.
“When we heard how this virus can multiply way more than any other virus, we thought at the very least we should start stockpiling equipment and start stockpiling PPE, beefing up staffing and creating space,” said Sheridan-Gonzalez. “My hospital is in a poor neighborhood in the Bronx, so it was already overcrowded. If there was going to be an influx of patients, we were going to be in trouble. We were not even trying to implement anything, we were just preparing.”
When the concerns of nurses that was brought to the DOH was disregarded after two cases arrived in early March in New York State, NYSNA started to reach out to the press around March 11.
Bronx had its first case around March 12 and by March 15 the government shutdown, according to Sheridan-Gonzalez. A week after the shutdown, the county had 50 cases. Nurses that brought their own N-95 masks when the government made light of the virus were threatened with being fired around March 18.
Masks didn’t become mandated in New York until April 15.
“Since then, there has been a lot of production of N-95 masks, but the problem is that there was a scarcity and people were forced to used them all day. They are meant for one-patient use,” said Sheridan-Gonzalez. “We did more research and found that there are other items that were much more effective, safer and that didn’t harm the environment.”
“They forced nurses with no ICU trainings to work in ICUs,” said Sheridan-Gonzalez. “So we are trying to work with our hospitals to develop better standards that are safe. Better staffing that is safe. Better ventilation that is safe.”
Billionaires need to pay more in taxes to support health care and education, including nursing education, according to Sheridan-Gonzalez who supports Patriotic Millionaires, who want to be taxed more to support their country.
“There are huge disparities that need to be addressed, especially in public health system,” said Sheridan-Gonzalez. “We don’t want to go to Albany every year and fight with people in education, housing and transit over crumbs. It is not sustainable for our city right now. There needs to be more money in the budget to be spent on staffing, equipment and our communities.”