By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- LaDonna Merriman admits she was nervous when she first learned that registered nurses caring for her infant son, Zachary, at Tod Children's Hospital were hitting the picket line this week.
The Wellsville homemaker didn't relish the thought of a whole new crew of nurses taking over the care of her fragile son.
Born premature and weighing under 2 pounds, the baby spent six weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit at Akron Children's Hospital before being transferred to Tod's neonatal ICU three weeks ago. At nine weeks, he weighed in at just 3 pounds, 10 ounces.
But now, three days after a team of registered nurses from outside the area stepped in to replace the 771 striking members of the Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association, Merriman said she believes her son is in good hands.
"It was pretty scary at first," the mother of three said, "but the new nurses seem to be very professional and caring. I feel reassured."
YGDNA members have been on strike since 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, and Forum Health bused in 270 registered nurses provided by an employment agency to help replace the striking YGDNA members at Tod, Northside Medical Center and the Beeghly surgical and emergency centers in Boardman.
Forum's Trumbull County facilities and its Austintown Medical Center are not affected by the walkout.
Striking nurses have been critical of the decision to bring in replacements, saying they aren't familiar with the area and with the hospital equipment and layout.
CEO's response: However, Michael Cicchillo, Forum's chief operating officer, said the company felt obligated to keep its Mahoning County facilities operating during the strike to meet the medical needs of the community.
He said the region has experienced a substantial drop in the number of available hospital beds with the recent closings of Southside Medical Center, Youngstown Osteopathic Hospital and Warren General Hospital and can't afford a Forum shutdown.
Forum officials say the replacement nurses have the training and credentials to work in the specialized departments they are assigned to, and all are licensed in Ohio.
Merriman and two other mothers of Tod patients The Vindicator interviewed this week said they've been satisfied, so far, with the replacements.
Another mother: Angela Bailey of East Liverpool said she had been spending most of her days and nights at Tod since April 25 when she brought in her son Tyler Benson, 4, for treatment of a seizure disorder.
She formed friendships with the Forum nurses caring for Tyler and was worried and saddened when she heard about the impending strike.
"Some of the regular nurses were so upset about leaving the day of the strike, they were almost in tears," she said, describing the walkout. "They were giving hugs and kisses to the children before they left."
Bailey said the replacement nurses arrived just moments after the striking nurses left their posts and have been attentive and helpful. She was impressed when one replacement nurse pulled some information from the Internet to help her understand Tyler's medical problem.
"I know the nurses are on strike for the safety of the kids. One of my son's nurses had to work 16 hours, and she was so tired. They shouldn't have to do that," she said. "But the new nurses slid right in, and they seem to be doing really great."
Tracy Bechtel of Ashtabula said she and her son Matthew Farmer, 10, arrived at Tod just two hours after the nurses' walkout and knew nothing about it.
She's been satisfied with the care provided by the replacements and said she's been oblivious to cheers of the strikers and the car horns of passersby outside the hospital.
"When you have a sick kid, you're not really thinking of anything else," she explained.
Here are issues: Nurses say mandatory overtime is the major sticking point in their stalled contract talks, but economic issues also remain unresolved.
Forum says it offered the nurses salary increases of 3 percent per year over three years. Union documents The Vindicator obtained in early April indicate the union was seeking raises totaling 19 percent at that time, and Forum was proposing increased drug co-payments and health insurance premiums.
Both sides have refused to discuss the contract issues in detail, saying they don't want to negotiate through the press. No talks have been scheduled since Tuesday morning.
St. E's labor talks: Meanwhile, contract talks are scheduled today and Monday for Teamsters Local 377, a union representing 850 service and maintenance workers at St. Elizabeth Medical Center. The local is threatening to strike at noon May 12 if it can't reach agreement on a new contract.
Ken Norris, a Local 377 business agent, said the union contract expires at midnight Wednesday and members approved a 10-day strike notice last weekend, but its negotiating team has decided to allow a few more days to bargain after the contract deadline.
Meetings are scheduled for 6 and 9 a.m. and 1 and 6 p.m. Wednesday for Teamsters to vote on the hospital's contract offer. Norris said some wage and scheduling issues still remain unresolved.