WILKES-BARRE —Nurses at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital went on the offense Friday, holding a press conference to denounce “the dangerous and numerous violations” of Act 102 — the state law that makes it illegal to mandate a nurse to work overtime — and to bring attention to insufficient staffing levels in the hospital.
Standing in the shadow of the hospital at North River and Linden streets, local and state union officials called for accountability from Community Health Systems, the owner of the hospital. The nurses also accused CHS of bargaining in bad faith — the nurses’ 3-year contract expired in April.
State Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski was on hand to support the 400 nurses who work for CHS.
“It is our responsibility to make sure our nurses have the tools they need to take care of us,” Pashinski said. “If their hospital isn’t putting enough nurses at the bedside, if nurses are being forced to work overtime – which is against the law in Pennsylvania – and if they are not treated professionally, patient care will suffer.”
Every speaker at the press conference expressed concern about patient care and for the effects mandatory overtime and reduced staffing has had on the nurses.
Elaine Weale, RN at Wilkes-Barre General and president of the local union, said since CHS purchased the hospital, there has been a decline in nurse staffing with a large and continual turnover of registered nurses.
“Our patients deserve experienced nurses to care for them, but current conditions at the hospital inhibit our ability to both retain the experienced nurses from right here in our community and to recruit new nurses,” Weale said. “CHS has to put patients before profits.”
The Wyoming Valley Nurses Association’s contract at the hospital expired on April 30th, and Weale said the lack of progress during negotiations has left the nurses questioning the hospital’s commitment to recruiting and retaining a dedicated staff and providing safe patient care to the community. CHS has refused to hire temporary staffing, instead mandating overtime shifts. Weale said the turnover rate for nurses has gone up and by mandating overtime, nurses are tired and patient care could be affected.
The Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP) — a union of 5,000 nurses and health professionals throughout Pennsylvania, represents the 400 nurses at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital. PASNAP Executive Director Bill Cruice, said in a release that “the corporate culture of CHS is one of contempt for the law, on every level.”
He said the National Labor Relations Board has had to obtain injunctions in federal court to compel CHS to bargain in California.
“They face ongoing investigations for Medicaid fraud around the country,” Cruice said. “In Pennsylvania, they have grossly violated the ban on mandatory overtime for nurses, with the connivance of the Corbett administration, as Labor and Industry continues to ignore well-documented violations.”
Jerry Silberman, senior staff representative for PASNAP, was at the press conference and he called CHS “an outlaw corporation,” adding that the company has battled with unions at many of its facilities across the U.S.
“You’re dealing with a lawbreaker here,” he said.
“Patricia Eakin, PASNAP president, said there is concern across the state about what is going on at Wilkes-Barre General.
“We’re concerned about unsafe nurse staffing,” Eakin said. “The law is violated here on a routine basis.”
Eakin said CHS “should come to the table” and deal with the problems and get them resolved.
Annmarie Poslock, vice president of marketing, said CHS is committed to the collective bargaining process and negotiations with PASNAP are ongoing.
“We hope both parties will remain focused on productive negotiations so a mutually acceptable agreement can be reached,” Poslock said. “Providing safe, quality patient care is our highest priority at Wilkes Barre General Hospital.”
Poslock said CHS staffs the hospital to meet the volume and medical needs of patients and in accordance with legislated guidelines. She said over the last several months the hospital has hired, trained and invested in more than 50 new nurses to provide care.
“Every one of our employees is a valued colleague and we strive to be a great place to work,” she said. “We have processes in place to ensure overtime is managed in accordance with Pennsylvania’s Act 102. In each instance where the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP) has pursued a claim, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor has determined that our hospital has adhered to the law.”
Pashinski said he plans to discuss the situation with his fellow legislators and he vowed to take the matter up with the Department of Health. State Rep. Phyllis Mundy, D-Kingston, has asked for a meeting with PASNAP and the health department.
“We will fight for you again and again,” Pashinski said. “All we are looking for here is fairness.”