Hospital: Nurses out longer if they strike

UPMC Altoona plans to keep the replacement registered nurses it has hired to work during a 24-hour strike beginning 7 a.m. Tuesday on the job through the following Friday, hospital officials said Thursday.

That will delay the return of the hospital’s regular nurses, who have called the one-day strike to protest the hospital’s allegedly walking out on negotiations, without a resolution of issues that include staffing levels.

The hospital is contracting with Huffmaster, a company that specializes in providing strike services, for both the replacement RNs and security during the replacement period, according to hospital officials.

The company requires a commitment from clients for “a certain period,” said hospital spokesman Dave Cuzzolina.

The hospital will have an option to extend the contract, which is “open-ended,” according to Christopher Rickens, vice president for nursing.

The hospital spoke about the contract after the nurses complained in a news conference Thursday about the cost of “flying in expensive, out-of-state temporary staff” to cover for the regular RNs during the strike.

“The fact that UPMC would spend millions on out-of-state temporary staff who have no commitment to our community rather than investing in quality care and quality jobs for our area is outrageous,” said Paula Stellabotte, SEIU Healthcare PA local president.

The nurses aren’t saying that UPMC should close the hospital in the absence of the regular nurses or try to hire local nurses who would be willing to go through the picket lines, Stellabotte said.

Rather, the hospital should never have let the situation get to the point where the nurses felt compelled to strike, she said.

The hospital doesn’t buy that logic.

“We certainly didn’t want it to come to this, but to take care of patients in the community, we had to do what we did,” said Linanne Batzel, chief medical officer.

“The obvious part of the answer is they left us no choice,” Cuzzolina said. “It’s very questionable whose fault the strike is. But the point is, we didn’t call it.”

Negotiations broke down Saturday when nurses came up with a proposal that added “many, many more things” to the pension and staffing issues the sides had agreed to discuss the day before, according to Rickens.

“They reneged,” Cuzzolina said.

According to the Altoona nurses, the replacement nurses won’t provide quality care, if only because they’ll be unfamiliar with the hospital setup and the patients.

Local nurse Jamie Wiegand said it took her two or three months to get acclimated when she first came to work at Altoona.

The hospital denies there will be a problem.

They’ll be “very experienced, highly trained” nurses licensed to practice in Pennsylvania, and they exceed the standards set by the state Department of Health, the Joint Commission and UPMC Altoona, according to Rickens and Cuzzolina.

They have more skills and training than typical agency nurses, they said.

They’ll be given extensive orientation in UPMC Altoona procedures before taking their assignments, Cuzzolina said.

They may need a little time to get acclimated when they take those assignments, but there’s no doubt they can do the work well, with the help of management – which will be present around the clock “to help guide them” and make sure things go smoothly, Rickens said.

“They do strike replacement for a living,” Rickens said.

Huffmaster, founded in 1957 and specializing in strike replacement nurses for 10 years, has never had a patient care issue, according to Cuzzolina.

Department of Health officials will be present to ensure there are no patient problems, Cuzzolina said.

The hospital plans to continue all services without interruption, hospital officials said.

To bolster their claim that the replacement nurses would be expensive, the union provided Internal Revenue Service documents for two hospitals that experienced strikes.

Wilkes Barre General Hospital paid a firm $3.6 million for staffing services in fiscal 2002, according to its Form 990 return.

Washington Hospital Center paid three firms a total of $49 million for staffing services in fiscal 2010, according to its Form 990.

UPMC Altoona officials declined to say how much they’ll be paying Huffmaster, which is headquartered in Troy, Mich.

The hospital plans to minimize contact between the replacement and regular nurses, according to Rickens.

It’s “prudent” not to have them working side-by-side, although there will be some face-to-face encounters for reports on patients as one group replaces the other, he said.

“[But] for the most part it will be a passing thing,” Rickens said.

There will be security “all over the place” and a “leadership presence” when members of the two groups come in contact, Rickens said.

It’s possible that regular nurses could return in some units earlier than in others, according to Rickens.

Hospital officials declined to say whether they plan to subtract the cost for replacing the strikers from the funding that would otherwise be dedicated to the hospital’s “last, best and final offer,” when post-strike negotiations resume.

The Altoona nurses’ morale is good, Stellabotte said.

“We’re very solidified,” she said.

Asked if she expected any members to cross the picket line, she said, “Sure, there will be a couple.”

Asked if there would be negative consequences for them, she said “nothing.”