Nearly 800 nurses at Langhorne’s St. Mary Medical Center went on strike this week on Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 17 and 18, to fight for safe staffing during COVID-19.
The strike was set to end Thursday, Nov. 19, at 7 a.m., but nurses say the hospital’s owner – Michigan-based Trinity Health Systems – hired approximately 200 out-of-state agency nurses and locked out their own frontline workers until 7 a.m. Sunday morning.
“All we want is a full complement of staff and the wages and workplace culture to attract and retain experienced nurses,” said critical care nurse Donna Halpern, RN. “And instead of taking our concerns seriously and fixing the serious problems at the hospital, Trinity chose to let us strike and lock us out for three additional days. We think the money they are paying to out-of-state replacement nurses would be better spent on the nurses who work here every day and are part of the community.”
Hospital officials said, “St. Mary has the right and obligation to continue to provide care for our patients, who rely on us to be their trusted healthcare partner. Any money spent to ensure continued access to care was, in our view, caused solely by our nurses’ decision to strike, but was necessary to uphold our mission of caring for our patients and community. We have offered PASNAP (Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals) generous wage increases, along with fair provisions and benefits, which the union has chosen to reject without allowing their members to vote on them.”
The St. Mary nurses, as well as the Bucks County Commissioners in a letter to hospital management, expressed concern over the temporary nurses. New mitigation orders from Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine require visitors to Pennsylvania to have a negative COVID-19 test or quarantine for 14 days.
“Are they coming from areas overwhelmed by the virus? Did the hospital test the nurses for COVID? Did the nurses quarantine for 14 days? These are the questions I think people should be asking Trinity,” said Jim Gentile, RN, a surgical services nurse at St. Mary for more than 35 years.
Hospital officials said the agency nurses, who were brought in to aid with the influx of patients, are meeting all COVID-19-related safety requirements, hospital policies and state emergency orders “despite the union’s reckless and false claims to the contrary.”
They added that this is not a “lockout.”
“About 20 percent of the St. Mary nurses in the bargaining unit chose to come to work rather than strike,” officials said. “The contract with the replacement nurses’ agency guarantees them five days of work and reinstating the St. Mary nurses cannot be accomplished overnight. It took several days to transition care to the replacement nurses we have hired, and it will take several days to transition patient care back to striking St. Mary nurses in a safe and orderly way.”
Nurses at St. Mary have been fighting for a first-contract, which would guarantee safe minimal staffing levels as COVID-19 numbers continue to rise. But they said Trinity refused to meet their demands. According to the nurses, there’s been a 30 percent turnover at the hospital in the last two years because of poor staffing and pay.
“They’re leaving because they are burned out from short staffing, underappreciated and undervalued,” said mother/baby nurse Beth Redwine, RN. “They’re going to other hospitals in the region where they are making $6 to $7 more per hour.”
Hospital officials countered that while St. Mary lost 243 nurses over the last two years, it also hired 266.
“St. Mary and PASNAP had productive dialogue around staffing in the most recent rounds of negotiations,” officials said. “The hospital proposed progressive contract language that offered St. Mary nurses a voice in staffing and an opportunity to meet and discuss the hospital’s staffing guidelines. This is essentially the same staffing language the PASNAP nurses at Mercy Fitzgerald agreed to in the labor contract they ratified Nov. 12. It’s unclear why this contract language would be acceptable to PASNAP from a patient safety standpoint at Mercy Fitzgerald but not at St. Mary.
“We look forward to getting back to the negotiating table and hope to come to an agreement on an initial contract that is fair, consistent and sustainable.”