UPMC nurses begin one-day strike

About 250 registered nurses from UPMC Altoona gathered in front of the hospital at 7 a.m. today to begin a 24-hour strike to protest the hospital’s breaking off negotiations recently on a new contract without resolving issues of staffing, health insurance and pensions.

A dozen Penelec workers who’ve been locked out of their jobs for 11 weeks, also in a contract dispute, stood quietly around fires in rings set up on the snow in a normally grassy area across the street to support the nurses, who have supported them.

The nurses chanted slogans, carried signs and walked back and forth on the sidewalk, mostly between the main entrance and the area near the hospital helipad.

The nurses wore heavy coats, boots, scarves, hats, hoods, even masks to withstand the cold — 5 degrees at the start.

Some of them crossed the street to stand near tall propane heaters set up not far from the Penelec workers’ fire rings.

Asked if the was cold, local President Paula Stellabotte said, “No, I’m pumped.”

Hundreds of drivers passing by on Howard Avenue honked in support, including a city firefighter driving an engine who blasted his horn for about 15 seconds.

Boxes of coffee and doughnuts lined the snow beyond the retaining wall on the hospital side.

Vans driven by union officials had shuttled most of the nurses to the hospital from the Jaffa Shrine, where they could park.

They used restroom facilities at a nearby recreation center.

The nurses were planning a rally with other unions at noon and a candlelight vigil at 5:30 p.m.

The picketing was to end in the evening, even though the strike was to continue until 7 a.m. Wednesday.

Nurses who were on duty and who were relieved by contract nurses hired as replacements were “very professional and thorough when turning over their patients,” according to a hospital news release.

Patient care continued uninterrupted, and it is “business as usual” for all hospital services and all hospital doctors, according to the news release.