Registered nurses at UPMC Altoona have made only slight progress toward a new contract so far this week, and the old contract - originally set to expire at the end of 2013 - is set to expire today, according to the nurses' union president.
Meanwhile, the hospital has been preparing for a strike, spokesman Dave Cuzzolina said. Last week, the nurses authorized their union to send a 10-day strike notice, should the sides fail to reach an agreement.
Union leaders have scheduled meetings all day Monday to inform the rank and file of the situation, which could change for better or worse depending on talks scheduled for Thursday and today, SEIU Healthcare PA local President Paula Stellabotte said Thursday afternoon.
The sides are still not in agreement on the major issues - health insurance, retirement benefits and especially staffing, according to Stellabotte.
"A $10 billion global corporation [comes] into Altoona to take over the community hospital, and they just want to roll everything backward," Stellabotte said. "It makes no sense."
The hospital will continue to bargain in good faith, said hospital Vice President for Human Resources Michelle Speck.
"In the event of a strike, the hospital will be fully staffed with Pennsylvania licensed registered nurses who embody the high standards our patients expect and deserve," Speck stated.
"These registered nurses are experienced, highly qualified and specially trained," Speck said.
The staffing ratios are the "key to everything," according to Stellabotte.
The nurses want the hospital to make the current ratio guidelines into rules, she said.
The hospital wants not only to relax those guidelines but also to take away nurses' right to file grievances when management is inconsistent in following them, according to Stellabotte.
Staffing ratio mandates would benefit nurses by keeping workloads reasonable, she said.
The mandates would also benefit patients by ensuring better care, and they would benefit the hospital by reducing readmissions, helping prevent reimbursement penalties imposed by the Affordable Care Act, Stellabotte said.
Mandatory staff ratios can mean more nurse aides, a secretary or even a more creative staff configuration, she said. "We're kind of dug-in on the staffing issue."
The hospital is also calling for a short-term wage freeze, a freeze on retirement benefits and more employee contributions for health insurance, Stellabotte said.
She claimed the hospital is pushing for the Altoona nurses to accept the conditions that exist at UPMC facilities in Pittsburgh.
But UPMC dominates Pittsburgh, Stellabotte said. "It's a different market here."
UPMC Altoona competes for nurses with Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown, Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College and even HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital in Altoona, and it needs to offer a competitive package to retain its share of RNs, she said.
UPMC executives promised that the acquisition of Altoona Regional Health System would be "great for everybody," Stellabotte said.
"We haven't seen that yet," she stated.