WILKES-BARRE — Carrying signs and chanting words of support, Wilkes-Barre General Hospital nurses Thursday said they were holding their one-day strike for their patients.
The union representing the nurses said later Thursday that hospital owner Community Health Systems will lock out the local nurses until Tuesday, June 5, and use temporary staffers instead.
“We’re walking today for our patients. We believe that our patients deserve to have a nurse at their bedside when they’re at their most vulnerable and need us most,” said Ashley Weale, RN, the local union vice president. “It’s unacceptable to us as nurses that our patients face delays in care because the hospital is understaffed. Staffing needs to focus on meeting the needs of patients, not simply increasing profits.”
Some 440 nurses at Wilkes-Barre General began their strike at 7 a.m., saying they can’t provide proper care due to chronic understaffing. They have been working under an expired contract since Jan. 31 while trying to resolve several issues.
A rally was held at noon at the corner of North River and Auburn streets, a short distance from the hospital’s entrance.
As the nurses carried signs, mostly stating “Patients before Profits,” passing vehicles honked their horns in support. A large balloon of Rosie the Riveter was set up at the site.
State Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, fired the crowd up with a rousing speech that centered on the valuable service nurses provide on a daily basis.
“You all are heroes,” Pashinski said. “And all you want is what you deserve — fairness and justice. You all have it in your hearts and souls to take care of people. Stand up and be proud of who you are.”
The union has estimated the hospital is short-staffed by approximately 107 full-time nurses. The Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, or PASNAP, counted more than 900 unfilled shift vacancies in the emergency room alone during a six-week period this year.
CHS was recently cited by the state Department of Labor and Industry for allegedly using illegal mandatory overtime to fill staffing holes and ensure coverage.
The one-day strike was supposed to end at 7 a.m. Friday. But that changed sometime Thursday.
The union announced the lockout to the local media via email about 8 p.m.
Renita Fennick, spokesperson for the hospital, issued a brief statement earlier Thursday that did not include information on when the nurses would be allowed back to work.
“Wilkes-Barre General Hospital continues to focus on providing safe, quality care and the best possible experience for our patients,” the statement read. “Teams of highly qualified, experienced, temporary replacement nurses are working to ensure uninterrupted care for patients. All inpatient, outpatient and emergency services are available and surgeries and diagnostic procedures are occurring as scheduled.”
Later, when asked to comment on the lockout, Fennick issued a short press release that noted: “We intend to continue negotiating in good faith in order to reach a mutual agreement between the union and our hospital.”
Before the lockout was announced, Weale said it would be unacceptable for CHS to do that to its dedicated nurses, as it did recently when it locked out strikers at two other sites it owns — First Hospital in Kingston and Moses Taylor Hospital in Scranton.
“We know our hospital and our patients better than replacement nurses from out of town,” Weale said.
Heidi Stempien, registered nurse and secretary for the local union, said nurses have asked for better training, better orientation, and safe staffing limits to help recruit and retain nurses.
“These are all things to help improve the quality of care for our community,” Stempien said. “The last thing any nurse wants to do is go on strike, but all of our pleas have fallen on deaf ears. They need to stop putting dollar signs ahead of patient care.”
Weale said negotiators for the hospital have offered no alternatives or even suggestions about how to address what the nurses claim is unsafe staffing.
“That has left us no alternative but to be out here today,” Weale said. “We’ll keep fighting because we’re dedicated to this hospital and to our community.”
A story on Page 1A of Friday’s edition, and on this site, stated that a one-day strike by Wilkes-Barre General Hospital nurses had “turned into five.” As stated in the next paragraph in the story, the nurses maintain they did not extend their strike, but said they have been locked out until Tuesday. Hospital officials have neither confirmed nor denied the lockout, including in response to direct questions on Thursday and Friday.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.