Forum Health's Trumbull nurses earn less than those in Mahoning, so parity will be a contract issue when talks begin next month, the union leader said.
By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
WARREN -- For Thomas Connelly, the sight of registered nurses on the picket lines at Forum Health's Mahoning County health-care facilities is bringing back some unhappy memories.
A radiology nurse at Forum's Trumbull Memorial Hospital in Warren, Connelly was president of the United Nurses of America at TMH when its 450 registered nurse members went on strike for 12 days in 1998.
With the current contract expiring Oct. 1, UNA leaders expect to return to the bargaining table next month, Connelly said.
They're hoping the lengthy walkout by members of the Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association isn't a precursor of things to come for them. The YGDNA, representing 771 nurses, has been on strike at Northside Medical Center, Tod Children's Hospital and Beeghly Medical Center since May 1.
"We're disappointed that it took a work action to reach a solution for the nurses in Youngstown, and we worry that it could take a job action for us, too," he said.
Don't want strike: Connelly said the TMH nurses don't want a strike, but the history of Forum's talks with its nurses has them concerned. In three years, two of the company's three contract negotiations with nurses unions were marred by walkouts. Nurses at Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital in Howland were the only ones who secured a contract in that time period without a walkout.
"We are committed to negotiating as far and as long as we can to avoid a work action that would endanger this community's health care," he said. "We hope Forum shares that same commitment."
Evonne Woloshyn, a Forum spokeswoman, said hospital officials are prepared to work hard to resolve any issues, but she didn't want to comment on specifics.
"We are committed to bargaining in good faith and doing whatever it takes to reach a fair and equitable agreement," she said.
Issues: Mandatory overtime has been a sticking point for the striking nurses at Forum's Mahoning facilities, but salary improvements, health insurance for retirees and other issues are also on the table.
Mandatory overtime was also a key issue for the UNA, an arm of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2026, when its members walked out three years ago.
Connelly said the nurses secured limits on mandatory overtime since then, but the result is that floors are sometimes inadequately staffed.
"It's a double-edged sword," he said. "The nursing shortage is the problem behind mandatory overtime, and it's not a problem peculiar to Forum Health, it's a problem from Connecticut to California. We've got to learn to think outside the box to build staff size."
Building the staff: This time around, UNA will be asking for recruitment and retention efforts like staff development, tuition reimbursement and flexible scheduling, all aimed at beefing up the numbers of the TMH nursing staff.
Salaries also will be high on the TMH nurses' list. Connelly said the ONA will ask for parity with Forum's Mahoning County nurses, he said. While YGDNA nurses average $23 an hour, Forum's nurses average $20 an hour.
The union also will seek health insurance coverage for its retirees, flexible scheduling to accommodate nurses who want to work limited hours, and sick pay that takes effect the first day of an illness, with no waiting period.
More incentives are needed if hospitals are going to keep their nurses and attract new ones, he argued.
"I lose an average of five nurses a month. They take nursing jobs outside the hospital where they can make more money and work less, or they leave the profession completely," he said.
Incentives: Corby Golias, an X-ray department nurse at TMH for 14 years, said some Cleveland hospitals are offering large sign-on bonuses, and salaries are so high that a nurse could reduce his or her work week from five days to three and still earn the same amount.
"Everybody's looking to see what's out there," she said.
One of the biggest differences between the Mahoning County Forum nurses' walkout and the ONA strike in 1998, Connelly said, was that TMH doctors were very vocal in supporting the TMH nurses. Because of the doctors' support, he explained, the hospital's census dropped dramatically during the strike.
Only one or two doctors have spoken out publicly in defense of the YGDNA. Forum has not released its census figures, but officials have said patient activity has been relatively normal after an initial drop when the nurses' strike began.
Public pressure from government officials was also a factor in the TMH walkout in 1998. Connelly said Warren Mayor Hank Angelo and some other local leaders staged a campaign to push for a quick end to the Warren strike.
In contrast, Youngstown Mayor George McKelvey and other elected city officials have been silent on the Forum-YGDNA walkout. Mahoning County commissioners did urge the two sides to seek a solution when they set up a meeting May 17 to hear both sides of the nurses' contract dispute. YGDNA leaders attended while Forum sent a letter explaining their position.
Finally, Connelly said the TMH nurses were "a little more vocal" than Forum's Mahoning County nurses have been on the picket line. "We were not violent. That was very important to us, as it is to the nurses in Youngstown," he said. "But we were not as quiet. We didn't want people to forget we were out there."