W-B General Nurses Vote To Authorize Strike Notice

December 11, 2018 GMT

WILKES-BARRE — Unionized registered nurses at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital voted Tuesday to authorize their union bargaining committee to send a 10-day strike notice to hospital management at their discretion.

Nurses will sit down with Community Health Systems officials for union contract bargaining on Thursday.

They said if their bargaining committee chooses to propose a strike date, a second vote will be taken to affirm a date and length of strike. 

According to labor law, nurses must give hospitals 10 days notice prior to engage in any work stoppage to allow for the arrangement of replacement staff.

The nurses have been in contract negotiations with hospital officials for nearly a year.

Elaine Weale, a registered nurse at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital for 37 years and union president of the Wyoming Valley Nurses Association, an affiliate of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, said the main issue for nurses in negotiations is to improve staffing at the hospital. 

“Short-staffing puts patients’ health care at risk,” Weale said. “Because of the serious staffing situation inside our hospital that hospital management has allowed to continue, we are being forced to consider striking yet again to achieve improvements in nurse staffing.”

At a press conference Tuesday in front of a temporary union house across from Wilkes-Barre General Hospital’s emergency department, Weale discussed a union report on conditions within the hospital including a financial review of hospital owner Community Health Systems. 

The Wyoming Valley Nurses Association’s report, titled “The State of Our Hospital,” details staffing issues at the hospital and the effects on patients.

The report highlights that Wilkes-Barre General Hospital has earned a total profit of $11 million in the last three years, according to the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, and alleges that Community Health Systems is not investing in proper staffing even as executive salaries have nearly doubled over the same period.

Franklin, Tennessee-based Community Health Systems, the largest for-profit hospital company in the U.S., purchased Wyoming Valley Health Care System in 2008. The hospital system in Northeast Pennsylvania includes six hospitals operating as “Commonwealth Health.” 

“Since Community Health Systems bought our hospital, we have experienced increasing vacancies resulting in chronic understaffing,” Weale said. “When we are understaffed, we experience problems such as unsafe patient limits which results in delays in care to the patients. When we are understaffed, the hospital also utilizes illegal mandatory overtime or forced overtime that results in longer shifts.” 

Stanley Wielgopolski, a registered nurse at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital who works in the emergency department, said CHS has advertised on local television and radio stations that there is a “30 minutes or less” pledge to be seen by a physician or physician’s assistant in the emergency department.

Yet, he said in September, Pennsylvania Department of Health inspectors found a lack of nurses and ancillary staff such as nursing aides, technicians and unit secretaries. 

“We are concerned that once admitted, patients can be assigned to hallway beds for hours in the emergency room or stays overnight until there are beds available upstairs,” Wielgopolski said. “Patients are told there are enough beds but in the typical units, it’s not that beds aren’t available but it’s that there are not enough nurses to take care of those additional patients.” 

The Pennsylvania Department of Health cited the hospital after an inspection in September for a “systemic nature of non-compliance with regards to nursing services” stating that management “failed to schedule a sufficient number of RNs and/or ancillary staff on the nursing units for 81 of 148 shifts reviewed.” 

Registered nurse Lori Schmidt said staffing benchmarks set by Wilkes-Barre General Hospital fall short of patient limits proposed in legislation.

The Pennsylvania Hospital Patient Protection Act, pending in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and State Senate, would address registered nurse staffing across the state by setting patient limits deemed safe by union nurses for each type of hospital unit. `

“Proposed legislation calls for no less than one nurse per five newborns but Wilkes-Barre General allows up to six newborns assigned to each nurse,” Schmidt said. “In the pediatrics unit, proposed legislation requires no less than one nurse per three children. However, at Wilkes-Barre General, staffing guidelines allow for up to five children per nurse.” 

Earlier this year, registered nurses participated in what was planned as one-day strike, demanding improvements in staffing. The hospital, however, hired temporary replacement nurses and locked out the unionized nurses for five days.

Renita Fennick, spokeswoman for Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, said if nurses strike, this would mark the sixth strike PASNAP has called in the last 15 years.

She said the most recent union contract with the registered nurses expired nearly 11 months ago on Jan. 31 and the hospital bargaining team has continued negotiating for a year “with the strongest intent to reach a new agreement.”

If PASNAP officials choose to strike again, Fennick said, “We are prepared to continue operating all services.”

“Rather than taking nurses away from their patients, we encourage PASNAP to take constructive action to reach an agreement at the bargaining table,” Fennick said. “Wilkes-Barre General Hospital will continue bargaining toward an agreement acceptable to both parties and believes our patients, community and our staff are the ultimate beneficiaries when we work together.”

Weale said during the last 21 bargaining sessions over the last year, hospital officials have failed to address the registered nurses’ concerns about safe staffing.

“We believe in investment in hiring additional nurses, aides and support staff is about putting patients before profits,” Weale said.

dallabaugh@citizensvoice.com, 570-821-2115, @CVAllabaugh