Negotiations continue as UPMC Altoona works with SEIU members after a one-day strike that’s left many nurses—over 600—temporarily out of work.
The scheduled strike began on Tues., Feb. 11 outside of UPMC Altoona. That same day, only 182 nurses crossed the picket line.
“[The union] called the strike for 24 hours, from 7 a.m. on Tuesday to 7 a.m. the following day,” said Dave Cuzzolina, Director of Communications at UPMC. “We contracted with the Huffmaster Healthcare Temporary Agency to fly in nurses from a wide geographic area. The nurses are very used to these types of situations, are licensed in the state of Pennsylvania and come highly trained and specialized.”
However, when the clock struck 7am on Wednesday, the nurses were told that they were “unconditionally available for work.” They were temporarily replaced and were told that they would be called in and transitioned back to the hospital by their unit managers.
“I can’t speak for the union’s side, but I feel that in a perfect world everyone makes his or her own decision about whether or not they want to walk out,” Cuzzolina said. “But we are currently working to transition all nurses back to work.”
What some saw as a minor disagreement between a corporation and its union, others felt that the situation was escalated when the nurses were “locked out” the following day.
“All of the nurses came back to the hospital on Wednesday ready to work,” said Deedee Murray, a registered nurse with UPMC Altoona. “Instead, we were met with police officers and bullhorns telling us that we were not allowed inside the facility.”
The strike began after ongoing negotiations about the nurses’ contract with UPMC. SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania represents the nurses and is campaigning for issues related to healthcare, staffing, and pension.
“There are a number of different issues including pension, health care coverage, and staffing,” Cuzzolina said. “But even though the SEIU says it’s not about money, when they’re at the bargaining table the topic seems to gravitate toward it.”
Murray disagrees. “Since we formed the union seven years ago, we have worked collaboratively with Altoona Regional to come to an agreement on a wide range of topics. You have highly skilled and educated nurses who are not willing to work for a company like UPMC that isn’t dedicated to providing the best level of healthcare.”
Murray states that the union is fighting to retain the current contract and is fighting changes that would decrease the nurse to patient ratio, eliminate the wage scale and career ladder, eradicate overtime hours, and require the purchase of UPMC healthcare—a plan that Murray says will “require nurses and staff to pay more in healthcare costs, only to receive less benefits.”
While many nurses stand in support of the union and ongoing negotiations, some nurses—a total of 182—decided not to strike on Tuesday. Many question whether it is professional and appropriate for health care providers to walk out on the job.
“While it is commendable that UPMC RN’s are fighting for what they believe they deserve, it is most unfortunate that they felt the need to walk off the job as an intended means to win the battle they are fighting with UPMC,” said Karen Aurandt, a registered nurse with UPMC and non-union member. “I hope a resolution can be reached quickly between both parties.”
Despite opposition, many of the community members are in support of the nurses’ cause. A rally held at the Altoona High School Wednesday night boasted a strong turnout. On Thursday, over 200 nurses picketed outside of UPMC headquarters, which many described as “the belly of the beast.”
“The doctors were supportive of us privately but were told by the hospital that they were not allowed to give public support,” Murray said. “A lot of the surgeons that are UPMC employees, however, were expected to keep their cases on to make the hospital seem ‘business at usual.’”
Dr. McClellan, a surgeon with University Orthopedic Center (UOC) and member of Tyrone Hospital’s medical staff, was one of the doctors that moved his surgeries to Tyrone, along with other surgeons that either canceled or moved surgeries to other medical facilities.
“We might be David and they are Goliath but sometimes things have to be taken care of in a way that we never anticipated,” Murray said. We have to do what we believe is the right thing to do, and in this case, it’s working for our patients. UPMC is a health care giant that is not part of this community. They refer to the hospital as a business unit and they don’t care about who the patients are that are being treated in the facilities. That should be a huge red flag for members of this community.”
Negotiations are expected to continue through the coming weeks, with meetings set on Feb. 18-20.
-Spring 2014/Internship at The Daily Herald