Philadelphia Nurses Strike for Better Working Conditions as COVID-19 Cases Rise

Another group of nurses recently took to the streets to demand safer working conditions, including better pay, a “fair” work contract, and more nurses on the floor, so coronavirus patients can get the care they need amid the ongoing health crisis.

Nearly 800 providers marched outside of St. Mary Medical Center in the Philadelphia area on Tuesday. Nurses on the ground say they blame the owner of the hospital, Trinity Health Systems, for refusing to come to the table to negotiate a better contract. As a not-for-profit Catholic health system, the company operates 92 facilities across the U.S.

This comes right as the city announced a new set of coronavirus restrictions after the daily number of positive cases in the area jumped by more than 700% over the last two months.

Negotiating for Better Pay

The nurses at St. Mary Medical Center have had enough. It’s been nine long months of working around the clock for less money than they could be making at other healthcare facilities. They are represented by the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP).

Union officials said over 240 nurses and providers have left the Philadelphia hospital over the last two years after taking better-paying jobs at nearby hospitals.

As nurse Robert Gentile puts it, “So what happens is, we orient them and then they leave to go to local hospitals and make $6 and $7 more an hour. So, it’s really sad. We’re the most underpaid nurses in Bucks County.”

Hospital officials say they tried to give their nurses a raise as recently as November 13th, but staff members rejected the offer, saying it wouldn’t be enough to recruit and retain the providers necessary to get the pandemic under control.

For the nurses striking, getting a raise is about increasing the number of staff members on the floor. They say they’re being asked to care for seven patients at a time when they should be caring for just three or four.

Nurse Robert Bozek said his colleagues came to the table in good faith that the hospital administrators would recognize their plight: “We were team players. We came up and we met with them and we made sure we would be as safe as we could be at this hospital.”

However, the negotiation process quickly broke down. “Trinity seems not to want to negotiate a fair contract that is safe moving forward, with benefits that we can recruit and retain staff,” Bozek said.

“What that means is the call bells are not being answered,” said nurse Donna Halpern. “There’s a human being behind that call bell with a need and I’ve heard call bells ringing for a half-hour.”

The hospital says many outside providers have been hired over the course of the pandemic, but not all of them stick around for the long haul.

On the Ground in Philadelphia

Nurses marched in front of the hospital on Tuesday and Wednesday to voice their frustration with management. As Halpern put it, “Today, we are standing up for our patients, for our community and ourselves.” Many nurses could be seen holding signs that read “Safe Staffing Saves Lives.”

The event included professionals of all ages and backgrounds. Beth Redwine, who works in obstetrics, showed up at around 7 AM to support her colleagues.

“Truly, the reason we are out here is that, God forbid, they have to come to the hospital, we can give them the care and attention they deserve,” she said, during the march. Redwine says she often finds herself doing the work of a secretary or nursing assistant during her 12-hour shifts because there aren’t enough nurses to go around.

The facility issued a statement in light of the strike, saying, “We respect the union members’ right to strike, and we remain committed to negotiating in good faith to reach agreement on a fair, consistent and sustainable initial contract for St. Mary nurses. We look forward to the day productive negotiations can resume.”

As for the PASNAP nurses who came out to participate in the strike, they won’t be allowed back at work until Sunday. Trinity Health says it needs several days to safely transition work away from the replacement nurses the hospital hired to fill in the gaps during the strike. Administrators say temporary nurses were hired on a five-day contract.

The strike gained attention from the media as well, granting interviews to the many nurses calling for safer staffing ratios. The COVID-19 pandemic has been especially hard on the Philadelphia area over the last few months. It was clear that support and sympathy for the nurses were high. After signing with PASNAP last year, clearly, the nurses at St. Mary Medical Center are ready to stand up for their right to better working conditions. We hope they see the changes they’re fighting for as they continue to stand up for their patients and colleagues. 

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