By William K. Alcorn
ValleyCare Northside Medical Center nurses say the overriding issue in contract negotiations with ValleyCare Health System of Ohio is the potential for declining quality of patient care inherent in the hospital’s proposal.
Money is a concern for the nurses, but the hospital’s proposal is unacceptable primarily because it includes the ability to send nurses home and mutes nurses’ voices in patient care, union officials said in a wide- ranging discussion Thursday with The Vindicator editorial board.
The 420 registered nurses represented by the Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association have been without a contract since July 19, 2012. On Aug. 2, the membership authorized its bargaining committee to call a strike. The next negotiating session is scheduled for Wednesday.
Though the union’s bargaining committee has the authority to signal a strike, it says that’s not what it wants to do.
According to the union, nurses start at $23.94 an hour. Top of the scale is $29.88.
“Our goal is to reach an agreement. But we’re committed to doing whatever it takes to keep nurses involved in maintaining the high standard of patient care at Northside,” said Eric Williams, YGDNA president.
“As a nurse, if I think a patient’s care or safety is at risk, I have a professional and moral responsibility under our code of ethics to speak up. Under ValleyCare’s proposal, I could not freely do that. If I said something was not right, I could put my job at risk,” Williams said.
ValleyCare Health System of Ohio said in a statement late Thursday: “Employees at Northside Medical Center clearly understand that they can speak up at any time. In our most recent employee satisfaction survey conducted in March this year, 93 percent of our employees that completed the survey said that staff can freely speak up and report events or issues impacting patient safety and quality of care. Nothing in our final offer to our registered nurses would change that.”
The union also is opposed to sending nurses home and then hiring contract nurses or paying overtime, saying it not only doesn’t save money but results in lost pay for those sent home.
That being said, the union has room to move in negotiations, said Nate Gunderson, a national representative for the American Federation of Teachers, which is assisting YGDNA with negotiations.
“We’re willing to negotiate 24/7 to work something out,” said Scott Stephens, AFT assistant director of public affairs.
Union officials said part of the problem is that there has been only about a total of one hour of bargaining during the last year and virtually no face-to-face negotiations with the ValleyCare team — just a federal mediator running messages back and forth.
ValleyCare’s statement continued: “Since the early part of 2012, Northside Medical Center has met with the Ohio Nurses Association for face-to-face meetings on more than 20 different occasions. Our negotiations are presently being conducted through a federal mediator who manages the schedule. The duration for the upcoming meeting was determined by the ONA.”
Joyce Shaffer, YGDNA first vice president, noted there are no nurses or other medically trained people on the ValleyCare team, and only one local person from the ValleyCare Human Resources Department.
“If there is no nurse at the table that understands the issues, how can they be discussed? And will what is agreed to be understood down the road?” said Shaffer, a registered nurse.
Williams described ValleyCare’s final offer as a “cookie cutter” proposal.
“Nothing in the contract creates a ‘cookie cutter’ health care experience for our patients or the valued nurses and other employees who provide their care,” ValleyCare responded. “In fact, we realize that every health care experience is unique. That’s why our nurses have always been empowered to be advocates for their patients and to engage directly with their managers whenever they have a concern.”
When asked why unions in ValleyCare’s other major hospitals in the Mahoning Valley had accepted new work agreements, Williams said: “In health care, one size does not fit all. Northside is an acute-care inner-city hospital, while Trumbull Memorial Hospital [in Warren] is more rural, and Hillside Hospital [in Howland] is a rehabilitation facility.”
The health system responded: “Northside Medical Center’s final offer included a 2.5 percent wage increase for all of the hospital’s RNs as well as a comprehensive medical benefit plan and processes for staffing the hospital according to the volume and needs of patients in our care. All of the other bargaining units at ValleyCare have overwhelmingly ratified contracts which mirror the terms in our final offer to Northside.
“Our final offer maintains nurse engagement in hospital operations and establishes a collaborative plan for labor/management meetings where volume-related staffing will be reviewed. Additionally, the expired contract includes a Quality Council which specifically addresses patient care; the hospital has not proposed to modify this in any way.”
Williams said the Northside nurses are the lowest-paid ONA-represented facility in the state, causing an exodus of nurses. They are going to St. Elizabeth Health Center, ValleyCare’s competitor, and getting $2 or $3 an hour across-the-board raises, he said.
It also is a loss of the bedside nursing experience that led to the hospital’s excellence in patient care, Williams said.
He said the YGDNA also is taking its quality-care message to the community by doing informational picketing from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday in front of Northside Medical Center on Gypsy Lane.
“We’re fighting to maintain the high quality of care for which Northside is known, and we hope the community wants the same thing and will support us,” Williams said.