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Prints or plain? Nurses resist Kaleida move to solid gray scrubs

Like many of her nursing colleagues, Pat Paolucci loves wearing her colorful print scrubs while tending to young  patients at John R. Oishei Children's Hospital.

Pediatric patients especially love to see Mickey Mouse, Santa Claus, other favorite characters and seasonal-themed prints that the nurses wear. The designs calm, cheer and sometimes become a talking point. The same holds true for adult patients in other hospitals who also love the fun patterns, nurses say.

"I always have worn prints because the children love them," said Paolucci, who has been a nurse at Women & Children's Hospital for 28 years. "They love the characters. Children react to that and they love that."

All that could change for nearly 3,000 unionized nurses  at Children's and the other Kaleida hospitals. The health care provider is considering a dress code change that would require nurses to wear solid-color scrubs and no longer the prints that they buy themselves. Long term, Kaleida would like its nurses to wear gray uniforms.

The change to solid colors was on tap for January, though union officials insisted such a change can only occur if it is negotiated in the next contract, which expires in May 2019. The two unions representing the nurses pushed back, saying they were only required for now to discuss the uniform issue as part of their current contract.

Kaleida said it wants to reinforce what it terms "the standards of appearance" and make sure their nurses are easily recognizable.

"Our objective is that the standards of appearance reflect the standard of nursing care we deliver across our system," said Cheryl A. Klass, Kaleida executive vice president and chief nurse executive. "Nationally, clearly identified registered nurses support feelings of trust and confidence. We want our patients to know who our registered nurses are."

Talk of the switch sparked debate between the union and Kaleida and led to nurses' resistance spilling over into social media. Nurses pay for their uniforms, which cost about $60. Full-time nurses typically need a minimum of three sets to handle 12-hour shifts throughout their work week.

A nurse wears a patterned top while working at the old Women & Children's Hospital. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News file photo)

The Service Employees International Union Local 1199 Upstate and CWA Local 1168 officials, nurses and a Kaleida team met a handful of times late last year. The unions filed a combined grievance, arguing they viewed the matter as a mandatory subject of bargaining.

"You are backdooring it by saying everyone has to go into a solid color," said CWA Local 1168 President Cori A. Gambini, a registered nurse at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital.

Kaleida stressed that patients and family members can get confused by trying to identify nurses if various staff  wear different uniforms. On a broader scale, Kaleida officials also say solid-colored uniforms are part of a national trend at many health care facilities.

Others argue that the popularity of prints outweighs opposing opinions.

"We wanted to stress to Kaleida the importance of leaving the current policy intact. We think it's important that the nurses are able to wear what they've always worn," said James Scordato, SEIU 1199 Western New York area vice president. "I think Kaleida has seen from the community and Facebook that this has created a life of its own. I don't think Kaleida realized the importance of these uniforms and prints to families and patients. We've had families approach us and ask how they can help."

The new Children’s Hospital is smaller than the old one, but it's designed to be more efficient and patient-friendly in its layout and equipment placement.

Shortly before Christmas, Kaleida delayed implementing any changes, so nurses can still wear print scrubs if they wish.

"We intend to continue discussions and we are listening to our nurses," Klass said.

"We'll get it fixed to a place where everybody's comfortable," Kaleida CEO and President Jody L. Lomeo said.

Linda Sheehan, a 32-year registered nurse at Buffalo General and Gates Vascular, has 17 print tops for work, some she sews and some she buys. She said it's important that nurses be able to buy quality uniforms that are comfortable for their long shifts and the type of work they do, which includes lots of stretching, bending and pulling with patients.

"We think it's important to wear what we've always worn," Sheehan said. "Ninety-nine percent of the nurses strongly feel a print top is better than a solid because they are more fun. They exhibit uniqueness, style and character. It's a conversation piece. All we want is to help our patients to be comfortable. It's very nerve-wracking for a patient, so if we can make it a positive experience ...  We love doing doing it. It's very uplifting for the patients."

Then there's the issue of the color gray.

"The solid gray is very boring. When you look up the definition of gray in the dictionary, it notes lacking cheer or brightness in mood, outlook and style. Dismal, gloomy, boring. Why do you want to implement something so negative?" Sheehan said.

Gambini agreed.

"I don't think it's really good for patients, and for a children's hospital, it makes no sense to do it there."

The color choice is breeding tension.

"We just opened this beautiful, brand new hospital, and tours are going, and they say, 'Look at the beautiful colors and animals,' but then you want your nurses dressed in gray?" Scordato said of Oishei.

Why gray?

"Gray is one of the most popular colors in the country right now," Klass said. "We're also trying to find one that is good for men and women."

Klass said she gets what the nurses are saying.

"I understand the sensitivity of working with children," she said. "It's how do we blend that sensitivity with the ability for our families to recognize registered nurses. Some of our patients want to know who the nurse is."

"It's all about the professionalism and the patients," Klass said. "For me, it's reflecting that excellent care that they provide and have it reflected in the standards of appearance."

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