Thoughtless words rankle at CMH

Carol SanCarlos (l) talks with Columbia Memorial Health employees Tracy Smart (r) and Ruth Snow at the Seventh Street park rally, Monday, sponsored by SEIU 1199, the hospital workers' union. Photo by Scott Langley

Carol SanCarlos (l) talks with Columbia Memorial Health employees Tracy Smart (r) and Ruth Snow at the Seventh Street park rally, Monday, sponsored by 1199 SEIU, the hospital workers’ union. Photo by Scott Langley

Hospital CEO apologizes for staff’s ‘inexcusable language’

HUDSON–Speakers at a 7th Street Park rally Monday evening called for “accountability” from Columbia Memorial Health after two incidents last month involving printed sheets that carried racial stereotypes of African Americans were displayed in employee areas of the hospital.

A hospital spokesman said Tuesday that the “terrible irony” of the situation was that the statements were part of what was supposed to be an advanced graduate education project by employees who planned to exhibit their understanding of health issues affecting African Americans.

Photos of a three-sided poster-board presentation titled “African American Heritage” show seven letter size sheets with bulleted items. One of them, under the heading “Communication” refers to African Americans, saying that they “tend to talk louder than other cultures…” adding that this “should not be interpreted as an expression of anger.” Another item under the same heading says, “Constant direct eye contact can be misinterpreted as aggression.”

Under the heading of “Nutrition,” the second of three items says, “Being overweight is viewed positively by this community.”

Timothy Rodgers, an official with SEIU 1199, the union that represents workers at the hospital, said Monday that the situation was made worse when the poster presentation was displayed in two places at the hospital and then, after some employees complained, a night nursing supervisor at the hospital defended the presentation and used a racial epithet in the process.

Neither the night nursing supervisor nor the nurses who created the presentation are African American.

The poster presentation was removed after the employees complained. The union asked to meet with hospital officials, but SEIU 1199 says that the hospital requested a formal grievance hearing, which did not lead to a resolution of the issues, as far as the workers were concerned. But following an internal investigation by the hospital, Columbia Memorial Health President and CEO Jay Cahalan issued an apology to the staff.

Bill Van Slyke, CMH vice president for marketing and external affairs, declined to release the text of Mr. Cahalan’s apology, saying that it was a communication between management and staff. But the union website, www.1199seiu.org, reported on the statement, saying Mr. Cahalan had apologized for the “offensive information that was posted in the hospital” and adding that the hospital CEO “also condemned the inappropriate actions of a supervisor who spoke to a worker in a deplorable manner, using inexcusable language.”

The account on the website quotes Mr. Calahan as writing, “These events should not have happened, and as CEO, I take full responsibility.”

No members of the CMH management spoke at the rally Monday, though Mr. Van Slyke attended the event and spoke privately with people in the audience. He said Tuesday the hospital had taken “corrective actions” following the incidents, but for privacy reasons could not say what those were. And he said in that although the hospital already has a policy about what materials can be displayed at the hospital, in the future, “We have to be more careful with materials being posted.”

Both CMH and SEIU 1199 have been circumspect in their public statements. The union contract will soon be up for renegotiation.

Mr. Van Slyke said the initial poster presentation had been based on a textbook that staff members were using to pursue “advanced degrees.” He said the book “deserves scrutiny.”

The lists in the presentation appear to come directly from a publication called “Guide to Culturally Health Care,” by Larry D. Purnell, PhD, a registered nurse and a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware. The most recent version was published in 2014.

The most obvious difference between the bulleted items on the posters at CMH and what appears in the guide is that much of the text from the guide has been deleted from the posters, including a warning in one instance that “health care workers must not stereotype African Americans.”

Kinderhook resident Kanu Matima, a pharmacist born and raised in South Africa who spoke at the rally, challenged any suggestion that the tone of the posters was accidental. “How could anybody claim they didn’t know what they were doing?” he said. “For our kids, for our future…. Let’s fight racism. When you see racism, don’t look the other way.”

Hudson Alderman Tiffany Garriga (D-2nd Ward) issued a similar challenge in her remarks at the rally. “Racism is something we deal with every day,” she said. “We need more people to get involved. Don’t be afraid to speak up.”

Mr. Van Slyke described the presentations as characterized by “terribly troubling judgment.”

Asked about the racial diversity of the CMH workforce, Mr. Van Slyke said, “By far, we are the most diverse organization in Columbia County.” To support that statement, he said that while the African American population of the county is 5% and African Americans make up 7% of the workforce at CMH. The hospital together with its care centers around the region is the largest private employer in the county.

Also attending Monday’s rally were Hudson Mayor William Hallenbeck Jr. (R), who spoke at the microphone, and Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106th), who did not. “I’m here to support the diversity of Hudson,” she said in a brief conversation during the event.

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