KINGSTON — Casey Fedor has worked at First Hospital for one year under the terms of an expired contract.
On Wednesday, Fedor and her co-workers staged a one-day strike to get their message out and hopefully convince Community Health Systems to bargain in good faith.
In response, hospital officials have locked out the strikers until Monday.
“We are so short-staffed that we are concerned about quality of care and patient safety,” Fedor said, taking a break from walking the picket line in front of the hospital on Wyoming Avenue. “We feel this has created an unsafe work environment.”
That claim was backed up by Sarah Panattieri-Cipriano, a registered nurse who sits on the union’s bargaining committee.
“Between January and August of 2017, we had 32 employees sent to the emergency room because they were assaulted,” she said as picketers braved the rain.
As vehicles passed blaring their horns in support of the workers, a woman with a bullhorn kept repeating phrases criticizing management.
“CHS — profits before patient care,” they shouted.
Both hospitals are owned by Community Health Systems, a Tennessee-based for-profit company that has purchased several area hospitals in recent years.
The current union contracts at both hospitals expired last year, and an agreement has yet to be reached despite more than a dozen negotiation sessions, the union added.
Panattieri-Cipriano said the workers planned to picket until 6 p.m., then report for work Thursday.
“If (CHS) doesn’t lock us out,” she said.
Replacements until Monday
That appears to be the case. Hospital leaders insisted they would maintain staffing and provide uninterrupted care during the labor action, with replacements being hired through Monday.
Clayton Nottelmann, chief human resources officer of First Hospital, said: “Securing highly qualified, temporary replacement nurses with specialized experience in behavioral health services requires more than a single-day commitment.
“For the well-being of our patients and their continued care, it is necessary to hire replacement nurses through 7:59 a.m. on April 30 for employees who chose to participate in SEIU’s strike,” Nottelmann added. “The decision to temporarily fill vacancies left by employees who chose to strike is made in the best interest of our patients.”
First Hospital’s service and technical worker shifts “are being filled with the hospital’s own qualified health care professionals and did not require the temporary hiring of specialists,” he added.
According to SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania representatives, there are 177 employees — RNs and techs — at First Hospital and the patient capacity is 140. They said there are about 115 patients in the facility.
Registered nurses at Moses Taylor Hospital in Scranton — also owned by CHS — and RNs, mental health technicians, and other workers at First Hospital held the one-day strike after unproductive negotiations with CHS. The sessions failed to make sufficient progress in key areas such as staffing, safety, training, and pay and health care to recruit and retain employees.
Nurses and other health care workers at both facilities have been operating under expired union contracts since last year. Low staffing, employee retention, safety, and the floating of nurses between hospital units have been the key concerns in negotiations. Mental health technicians and other workers at First Hospital are also striking to protest the company’s implementation of its final contract offer.
Nearly 300 nurses at Moses Taylor have been working under an expired contract since Dec. 31, with roughly 90 nurses and 100 technical and clerical workers also working under expired contracts at First Hospital. All of the nurses and other striking workers are members of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania.
“Making the decision to strike was hard, but as a mental health technician, I knew I had to take a stand for my patients,” said Abby Casey of First Hospital. “Proper safety and staffing is critical in any facility, but in a psychiatric hospital, it is absolutely vital. My patients deserve safe staffing limits and trained, experienced professionals. Anything less is unacceptable.”
Patient offers support
Mary Beth Harshbarger suffers from bipolar disorder. She said she has been a patient at First Hospital twice — in 1996 and recently for two weeks, having been released Tuesday.
“The care given at First Hospital is beyond good,” she said. “It’s by far the best in the area. I just want to thank the staff for all they have done for me.”
Patty Ludwikowski, lead organizer for SEIU, said CHS was offering employees $500 to stay inside and not participate in the one-day strike.
“That’s pretty pathetic, don’t you think?” she asked.
Fedor works on a children’s unit at First Hospital with patients ages 5 to 13. She said two or three staffers are responsible for taking care of all the patients on the unit.
“It’s just unacceptable,” Fedor said. “On paper, the ratio works — in reality, it doesn’t.”
Fedor said CHS has reduced staffing ratios consistently. She said patients have behavioral problems and diagnoses ranging from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) to Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) to bipolar disorder.
Fedor said staff are often pulled to adult units, which requires different training. She said the children patients can sometimes be more violent than the adults.
Fedor said she started at $10.50 per hour and received a raise to $11.51 hourly.
Panattieri-Cipriano said a negotiation meeting was held two weeks ago, and another session has not been set.
“We wanted to get their attention by holding this one-day strike,” she said. “We want to get back in there and care for our patients.”
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.