WILKES-BARRE — Clashes over health insurance and concerns about staffing have led unionized nurses to authorize a five-day strike against Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, beginning at 7 a.m. on the Fourth of July.
The Wyoming Valley Nurses Association/Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals issued a statement Tuesday saying that after 22 bargaining sessions, the sides could not reach an agreement on new contract. The more than 400 registered nurses have been working under the terms of a two-year contract that expired in April 2013.
The for-profit Community Health Systems of Franklin, Tennessee, acquired the hospital in May 2009.
“The union delivered a 10-day notice to the hospital on June 23,” the statement read. “Bargaining ended after two additional sessions when the Hospital refused to respond to settlement proposals put forward by the nurses.”
There currently is no negotiation session planned, though the union is prepared to meet at any time, said Bill Cruice, executive director of the Conshohocken-based PASNAP.
The hospital, in a statement, said the strike would not interrupt patient care.
“A contingency operations plan will be implemented, in the event the strike does occur, to ensure continuation of quality services,” according to the statement. “The hospital will remain open with all emergency services, inpatient units, and outpatient departments staffed and available for patient care. All surgeries and diagnostic procedures will continue as scheduled. As always, our top priority is the care and safety of our patients, employees and visitors wherever such activity may occur.”
The statement said the hospital would use a professional staffing agency to secure qualified replacement nurses who are credentialed and licensed to work in Pennsylvania.
“The temporary nurses will work with employees who are not represented by PASNAP and those nurses who choose to cross the picket line,” the hospital said.
All public hospital entrances and parking areas will remain open and additional security personnel will be posted throughout the facility to assist hospital visitors and to increase security patrols, according to the statement.
The union said health care is one of the main stumbling blocks in the negotiations because CHS insists “that it retain the right to unilaterally change the health insurance plan available to employees at any time during the contract, while locking in rapidly escalating premium charges. CHS further has refused to bargain in good faith over nurses’ demands to guarantee staffing adequate to patient safety; or to provide wages that would enable the Hospital to retain skilled nurses.”
Cruice said the union offered language that would allow CHS to make changes to the health care, as long as the changes didn’t diminish the value or the overall benefits of the health care.
Cruice said that, for example, the union would be OK with CHS increasing the employees’ copay, as long as there was a decrease in the physician copay.
“They wanted to reserve the right for themselves to change the overall contract at will, without negotiating with the union,” the union official said.
Cruice said the union also wants to ensure the nurses have a voice to express their concerns about staffing.
Nurses’ pay scale
Wages, however, are not a major issue in the contract stalemate, Cruice said. Starting pay for registered nurses at Wilkes-Barre General is $26 an hour and the top rate, after 25 years of experience, is $31.56 per hour, he said.
The hospital put the average base rate pay for the approximately 450 graduate and registered nurses at $28.50 per hour plus benefits.
In its statement, the union also pointed to allegations of labor law violations against CHS in California, Ohio and West Virginia. The company owns, operates or leases 208 hospitals in 29 states, and is the largest publicly traded hospital company in the country.
The hospital did not address the violation claims in its statement.
Nursing contract negotiations with CHS were contentious for the previous contract, which went into effect in May 2011. That took two years to negotiate. That contract included a 7.25 percent across-the-board pay raise over two years.
The negotiations began shortly after CHS acquired the hospital and other assets of the Wyoming Valley Health Care System on May 1, 2009, for $271 million.
If nurses walk out on Friday, it won’t be the first time. Even before CHS purchased the health care system, the nurses went on strike on Jan. 30, 2003, when the WVHCS operated the facility. WVHCS locked out the workers for 10 days and hired replacement workers. The dispute ended when a new agreement was reached on Feb. 14.
The nurses also held a 24-hour strike from Dec. 23 to 24 in 2010, but it was not extended by a lockout, as they continued negotiating with CHS. They reached an agreement on May 3, 2011, and have been working under the terms of that contract that expired in April 2013.
But on Dec. 3, 2013, the union held a 24-hour strike and was locked out two more days while temporary workers staffed their shifts.
The union filed unfair labor complaints against Wilkes-Barre Hospital Co. LLC in April, claiming it made numerous requests to the company for information in order to be able to bargain for a new contract. The NLRB set a hearing date for July 14 in Philadelphia.