WILKES-BARRE — What Elaine Weale and the other striking nurses outside Wilkes-Barre General Hospital heard from the inside about staffing was “disheartening,” she said Saturday.
The nurses represented by the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals picketed outside the city’s only acute-care hospital on the second day of a five-day strike.
Staffing was one of the sticking points in the negotiations that broke down, leading the more than 460 unionized nurses to authorize a strike against the hospital that was purchased in 2009 by Community Health Systems Inc. of Franklin, Tennessee. The switch to for-profit from non-profit status has not been lost on the union that’s been vocal about the publicly traded corporation focusing more on its shareholders than patients and employees.
“From the inside what we’re hearing is kind of disheartening to us,” Weale, president of the local union, said as the nurses gathered near the main entrance on North River Street to get their daily marching orders.
Secretaries and nursing assistants have been called in to work with the replacement workers temporarily hired to fill shifts on the floors and various units in the 412-bed hospital, Weale said. The employees likely were getting paid overtime, adding to the cost of the labor dispute.
“If we were staffed that way,” Weale said, “we wouldn’t be out here.”
The hospital did not respond to a request for a comment.
The union’s picket line is up from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. The goal is to have between 50 and 70 per shift.
“We do three-hour pickets shifts. The shifts overlap by an hour,” Weale explained.
The nurses held signs and U.S. flags and walked on the sidewalk along North River Street as part of the organized and peaceful protest against their employer. At noon they broke for a rally with Weale and others passing a hand-held microphone back and forth as their voices were amplified through speakers.
Weale, an emergency room nurse for 33 years, called for solidarity among the picketers.
“We know that we can’t back down and we will get what we want,” she said.
Lori Schmidt, a nurse of more than 26 years, offered encouragement to her co-workers with less experience, especially new hires who just graduated and filled out union membership cards.
“Don’t be afraid of that beast behind us,” she said, referring to the hospital at her back. “They are trying to break us and it’s not going to happen.”
With 36 years on the job, Sandy Belles was the most seasoned professional of the speakers. She’s been involved in four strikes; three of them with the new owner.
“I’m tired of doing what’s good for their bottom line instead of doing what’s good for the patients,” Belles said.
The nurses said they intend to return to work unconditionally on Wednesday, but were uncertain if they would be locked out by the hospital.
The union and hospital, which does business as Wilkes-Barre Hospital Co. LLC, have a July 14 hearing before the National Labor Relations Board in Philadelphia to resolve complaints by the nurses that they were not provided information necessary for them to negotiate a new contract. The nurses have been working under the terms of the contract that expired on April 30, 2013.