Roughly 300 registered nurses at Heritage Valley Health System in Beaver began a 24-hour picket Tuesday morning, demanding better working conditions and benefits.
Registered Nurse Molly Romigh, president of the hospital’s local chapter of the Service Employees International Union, said nurses are dissatisfied with the RN-to-patient ratios maintained by their employer.
“We have an area where we have pediatric patients with monitors and Heritage Valley wants to increase that nurse-to-patient ratio; they want to give the nurses more patients,” Romigh said. “On our behavioral health unit, we have a split unit, which is locked by a door, and we're asking for one more nurse to have safety on either side of that door at all times during the day.”
Romigh said the union is also asking for an additional emergency room nurse.
The issue of nurse-to-patient ratios has come up in both the state house and senate this session. Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny) has introduced a bill that would require hospitals and other health care facilities to report staffing levels for individual units to the state Department of Health. They would also be required to post the information publicly in patient care areas.
“There are numerous studies that have shown that chronic short staffing is a major contributor to preventable hospital-borne infections, accidents and patient deaths,” Fontana said.
A separate bill in the house lays out minimum staffing requirements for different types of care facilities and hospital units.
Union vice president Mimi Tambellini said under-staffing has led to increased turnover in recent months.
“It's a quality care issue,” she said. “We need to make sure that staffing is adequate to keep our nurses here.”
Nurses also claim that Heritage Valley wants to increase the cost of healthcare benefits by 60 percent, which Tambellini said would cost the average nurse around $2,000 annually.
The demonstration began at 7 a.m. Tuesday, when nurses marched about a quarter mile to the hospital parking lot from a nearby church, flanked by about a dozen by SEIU Healthcare PA staffers. An SEIU spokesperson said 60 to 80 nurses also walked off the job at that time. Nurses stopped in the parking lot for fewer than five minutes, with the expectation they would be asked to leave by hospital security. They then moved to a grassy field on hospital property where Romigh said they will picket until 7 a.m. Wednesday.
“(This is) our last resort," she said. "We don't want to be out here. We want to be inside taking care of our patients and our community. But management walked away from the table last Monday, and they have not come back.”
Heritage Valley took out newspaper ads in the Sunday editions of the Beaver County Times on July 10 and 17, saying it will “continue to negotiate in good faith” with the union.
According to the ad, the hospital’s patient staffing ratios are, “more favorable than our community based competitors who provide comparable health services.” A hospital spokesperson did not respond to a request for more details on those ratios as of press time.
The ad specifically addresses the question of health care benefits, stating that bi-weekly contributions and co-pays have not increased in two years and that deductibles remain competitive at $400 for an individual and $1,200 for a dependent.
The ad also states the hospital is offering nurses a 2 percent wage increase every year for the life of the three-year contract, and that the average nurse’s wage is 16 percent above the market median. No spokesperson was available to provide additional information about the nurses’ wages or the source data for the comparison.
Both versions of the advertisement are included below, reflecting advancement in contract negotiations.
Heritage Valley declined an interview stating an internal policy not to discuss ongoing contract negotiation with the media.
The nurses’ previous contract ended June 30. Romigh said bargaining has been underway since early May.