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Union begins talks with UPMC

UPMC and the registered nurses at UPMC Altoona began negotiations Wednesday on a contract to replace their three-year deal that expires Dec. 31.

The sides reached that current deal in March 2014, but only after unproductive negotiations led to a 24-hour strike that finally got the hospital to take negotiations seriously, according to SEIU-Healthcare PA local President Paula Stellabotte.

The nurses don’t want a repeat, she said.

“We’re all adults,” she stated. “We want to work out a good deal, then enjoy the holiday.”

The hospital had no comment on the start of talks, said UPMC Altoona spokeswoman Patt Keith.

The nurses hope a new deal will sharpen the hospital’s competitiveness among regional hospitals, so it can attract and retain staff, based on wages, benefits, quality of care and working conditions.

Having enough experienced nurses and other staffers is critical for quality of care and good for everyone — employees, UPMC itself and most of all, patients, Stellabotte said.

There are hurdles to negotiate: UPMC Altoona can’t compete with Mount Nittany on wages, because that hospital receives higher reimbursements for services based on its location in a Medicare-designated region with a higher cost of living, according to Stellabotte.

But there are perks that can help make up for wages, including good “differential” pay for earning a bachelor’s degree and good maternity leave, she said.

Staffing was the main issue for the last contract, too.

That contract ended up including guidelines to help ensure there are enough nurses to do the job in each department.

Those guidelines are a compromise between stricter rules the nurses would have preferred and additional flexibility that management wanted.

The nurses would like to strengthen the guidelines in the upcoming contract.

They also hope the new deal will help them advocate for changes, according to Stellabotte and other nurses who sat with her Wednesday to explain the union’s position.

In the old days, when Altoona was an unaffiliated community hospital, such advocacy was easier.

You asked for something, and the hospital provided it, they said.

Nowadays, you need more documentation, showing that what you want is good for patient outcomes not just in Altoona, but for all of the hospitals in the UPMC system, they said. The suggestion also needs to go through layers of management, involving further research, before approval.

Still, there are positives, said Sandy Wagner, an RN in the medical intensive care unit, citing UPMC’s use of expensive, but helpful, RotoProne beds.

The nurses also would like the new deal to make training more accessible, so they don’t need to drive to Pittsburgh and back.

And they want to increase the frequency of special quality improvement efforts that involved each department working to identify, then solve an issue.

There was one such effort — with multiple meetings over several months — during the current contract period.

It got nurses excited and involved and seemed to please management, the nurses said.

Among the helpful changes that came from it was a program to ensure enough intravenous medicine dispensers are always available in the Emergency Department, Wagner said.

“We can’t change corporate health care, but we want to participate,” Stellabotte said. “If we all work together for the same goal, everybody wins.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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