WILKES-BARRE — Citing decreased staffing and increased turnover, unionized nurses at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital conducted a trio of informational pickets outside the River Street facility Monday.
“It used to be about four patients for every nurse on our floor,” said Dorothy Konopki, an registered nurse assigned to the orthopedic surgery patients. “Now it’s closer to six to one.”
Konopki spoke as about 20 off-duty nurses and some of their children walked back and forth in front of the hospital around 1 p.m. Three pickets of about two hours each were held beginning 8:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.
Commonwealth Health Information Director Renita Fennick released a written response that said Wilkes-Barre General strives to meet patient needs while operating within legal requirements, and that contract negotiations are ongoing and in good faith.
Konopki said the decline in staffing has been slow but steady since the Tennessee-based, for-profit Community Health System bought the hospital. The fifth anniversary of that purchase is next month, one of two reasons the union decided to stage the pickets, emergency room nurse Elaine Weale said.
The other: April 30 will mark a year since the last contract expired.
Staffing declines have also hit secretarial and administrative positions, Weale said. And while those people were not members of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, or PASNAP — the union nurses belong to — such cuts impact nursing care as well, she added.
The full response from CHS insisted the focus is on patient care and employee satisfaction:
“Providing safe, quality patient care is our highest priority at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital. We staff our hospital to meet the volume and medical needs of our patients and in accordance with legislated and regulatory guidelines. For example, we have processes in place to ensure overtime is managed in accordance with Pennsylvania’s Act 102.
“Our successful nurse recruitment efforts allow us to hire, train and invest in the appropriate number of nurses to provide care. Every one of our employees is a valued colleague and we strive to be a great place to work.
“Negotiations between Wilkes-Barre General Hospital and PASNAP are ongoing. We remain committed to good faith bargaining and hope a mutually acceptable agreement can be reached.”
The cuts have a ripple effect throughout much of patient services, Weale said. Outside of critical care services in which nursing remains at about two patients for every nurse, other patients are impacted by longer wait times as overworked nurses try to cover more demands, she said.
The cuts have also caused higher turnover among nurses, Weale said, because new nurses quickly decide the demands are too high and look elsewhere for work.
The union wants CHS to include staffing ratios in contract talks, but the company wants to leave that up to the hospital administration, Weale said. “That’s unacceptable,” she said.
Weale also said CHS has failed to change its proposal for the last 10 months of contract talks, and that the offer on the table could leave nurses making less money overall at the end of the contract thanks to small raises and increased insurance premium sharing.
The offer of a three-year deal includes a 1 percent raise the first year, 0.75 percent the second and 0.5 percent the third. The share of health insurance premium nurses would have to pay would increase by 8 percent to 13 percent.
Nurses are already paying about 19 percent of their premium, Weale said.
“And CHS wants a clause in the contract that essentially says they can raise the amount we pay whenever they want,” she added.