Nurses ratify contract

The registered nurses of UPMC Altoona voted overwhelmingly Friday to ratify a new three-year contract, resolving four months of contention that climaxed with a 24-hour strike starting Feb. 11.

“We stood up to them,” said nurses’ union local President Paula Stellabotte of the battle against the health care giant that acquired the local hospital in July. “We did what we said we’d do.”

The contract is “fair to our nurses and financially prudent for the hospital and our community,” and it will help the hospital be financial viable in the current health care environment, hospital spokesman Dave Cuzzolina said in a news release.

The contract calls for staffing guidelines that are the same as in the nurses’ old contract – one signed before UPMC acquired the former Altoona Regional Health System in July, according to both sides.

The nurses – who repeatedly said staffing was their biggest issue, because of their influence on patient safety, quality care and recruitment – had wanted to harden the guidelines into rules, while the hospital had wanted to soften them to increase management flexibility.

The nurses made “fair compromises” on health care, retirement and wages that won’t compromise the hospital’s ability to retain and recruit nurses successfully in this region, according to Stellabotte and Cuzzolina.

The contract gives nurses a 2-percent raise the first year and 2.5 percent in the remaining two years, according to SEIU Healthcare PA union spokeswoman Karen Gownley in a news release.

The increases are slightly more than they were in the hospital’s pre-strike “last, best and final offer,” but “no more than any nonunion UPMC employees will receive systemwide,” Cuzzolina said.

The contract will improve retirement benefits for about half the nurses, while adding credits to “ensure retirement security” for the others, Gownley said.

The contract adds a “code green” team of employees that will be available to help when nurses feel threatened, said nurse Sue Delozier, a member of the negotiating team.

All the contractual conditions will be locked in for three years, as opposed to being at the mostly nonunion organization’s policy discretion, according to the nurses.

Still, “the elements of the contract are consistent with what UPMC has done or is doing at its other hospitals, and allows for a successful integration of our registered nurses into UPMC policies and programs,” Cuzzolina said.

“There’s nothing here that nonunion employees won’t receive,” he said.

The dispute shouldn’t create bitterness or strain with management, Delozier predicted.

Since the strike, managers seemed relieved to have the regular nurses back, she said.

It shouldn’t lead to reprisals against the 182 nurses who crossed the picket line, either, according to Stellabotte.

The good feeling created by resolution of the contract should overshadow that, she said.

“We expect everyone to be professional and do their jobs,” Cuzzolina said.

Asked what broke the impasse in negotiations, Stellabotte and Delozier said, “The strike!”

Stellabotte said the strike was “definitely” worth it.

It got the nurses six more bargaining sessions, she said.

It showed the hospital the nurses were unified, Delozier said.

They spoke quickly, finishing each other’s sentences in a way that seemed to symbolize the unity that Stellabotte said she was most pleased with of all the results of the effort.

“We’re sisters,” Delozier said.

Ultimately, the contract was about halfway between what the nurses and the hospital wanted, according to nurse Jamie Claycomb.

“[Still] nobody wins in a labor dispute,” Cuzzolina said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.