‘All we want is a fair contract’

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The nurses at Indiana (Pa.) Regional Medical Center (IRMC) say they want their hospital to be a place where highly skilled nurses will want to come to work—and stay. The key to recruiting and retaining nurses, they believe, is a fair contract that includes an attractive wage and benefits package.

The nurses, represented by the Indiana Registered Nurses Association/HealthCare-PSEA (an affiliate of AFT Nurses and Health Professionals) have been working without a contract since Oct. 31, 2018. “The hospital came to us with a list of multiple concessions,” says Kathy Wolfe, a registered nurse and president of the IRNA. The medical center has claimed poverty and proposed reductions in healthcare, paid time off and wages, says Wolfe.

RNS in Indiana

But on its own physician recruitment webpage, IRMC claims to be financially sound. And it has been recognized twice by Healthcare Executive magazine as one of the fastest-growing hospitals in the country, says Roseann Staniscia, a certified registered nurse anesthetist and member of the IRNA. “Why, given this portfolio, is IRMC demanding concessions from its nurses?”

As registered nurse Jamie Okopal puts it: “We are not being selfish or greedy. We are taking a stand to take care of ourselves so we can take care of our patients. Our goal is to ensure that our nurse turnover rates remain low and that we recruit and retain highly skilled nurses who are invested in our community and families.”

In November, the nurses protested the hospital’s concessions with a one-day strike, and the hospital contracted replacement workers for five days—leaving the IRNA members without work or pay until they returned to their jobs on Dec. 1.

“We were told that IRMC’s final offer would have saved the hospital $1.3 million as a result of cuts by the nurses,” says Staniscia. “When we turned down the offer and issued the strike notice, the hospital chose to pay $1.5 million to replacement nurses instead. Am I missing something? Wouldn’t they have been better off financially, improving their offer to our nurses through good-faith negotiations instead of hiring replacement nurses? A strike would have been avoided, and the contract could be settled.”

The nurses say the hospital has used a number of union-busting techniques, including misinformation and fear tactics, to divide members. But the nurses are united and standing strong, says Wolfe.  Members of the community have rallied behind the nurses as well.  Community support has been tremendous,” says Wolfe.

“It is uplifting during this very difficult time to hear words of encouragement and an outpouring of support from our community,” adds Staniscia.

The facility is a community hospital located in central Pennsylvania. It is the only hospital in the county, which means that most members of the community will at some point in their lives have been cared for by an IRMC nurse.
“Our fight is ongoing, but it has made our union stronger. Our members have fought hard for improved staffing ratios, patient safety initiatives, wages, benefits and working conditions over the years,” says Staniscia, noting that all are key factors in the recruitment and retention of high-quality healthcare providers.

A contract agreement has not been reached, but some progress has been made at the table on key issues, including healthcare and paid leave. Bargaining continues for the nurses.

[Adrienne Coles]