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Nurses Union Holds UPMC Rally

CAROL WATERLOO FRAZIER Daily News Health Editor

In an attempt to "deliver a message" to UPMC Health System Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Romoff, a group of about 30 nurses from UPMC McKeesport and UPMC Beaver Valley rallied outside the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health in Oakland.

"We are trying to deliver a message to the UPMC hierarchy that they are not going to get a contract that robs health care from the nurses," said Anne Brumfield, SEIU Local 585 representative for the nurses at UPMC McKeesport.

Nurses at the local hospital voted 193-to-6 Tuesday to send a 10-day notice of a potential strike at the facility. If a walk-out occurred, it would be at 6:40 a.m. Dec. 23 and affect about 260 registered nurses and licensed practical nurses.

A statement released by UPMC McKeesport states, "UPMC McKeesport and representatives from SEIU Local 585 are currently participating in the collective bargaining process. The hospital acknowledges the receipt of a 10-day notice for a work stoppage in the event that a new contract is not reached by Dec. 21, 1999.

"Although the negotiation process continues to move forward," according to the statement, "to date the hospital has not received proposals from the union regarding staffing levels. However, the hospital’s chief negotiator and spokesman, Edward E. McGinley, states that he is optimistic that the process will yield a conclusion satisfactory to both sides in advance of the expiration date."

There has been only one strike by nurses at the hospital and that was in 1990, seven years after they agreed to join the union. Current negotiations have been underway since October with Health System and UPMC McKeesport officials.

UPMC spokeswoman Jane Duffield said it is against hospital policy to comment on specific issues related to collective bargaining. But she said the health system is optimistic it will reach settlements at McKeesport and Beaver.

Nurses at UPMC Beaver Valley have been working without a contract since November and extended their deadline until February. The contract at UPMC McKeesport will run out Dec. 21; the two-day difference, a spokesperson said, was to present and review the situation and vote on what action to take.

There are several issues in the forefront including staffing; sick time, vacation and personal days; co-premiums for health insurance; the pension plan, and wages.

"They want the nurses to have a 25 percent co-pay on health insurance," Brumfield said. "They (UPMC Health System officials) are saying it is normal to pay that amount, but co-payments have only been an issue recently."

Patricia Hlad, a registered nurse with the step-down unit at the hospital, said they also are asking the nurses to pay a 95 percent co-pay on dental insurance. "For our health insurance, it will cost $140 a month and we aren't getting a pay raise and no overtime over eight hours. They are not giving anything but taking everything from us."

Another issue involves staffing. Cheryl Hast, RN, an intensive care unit nurse at the hospital, said health system officials want to freely schedule part-time workers as needed. "They want a short staff and mandate when the census comes up. I work in ICU and the census is always up there. They can't send us down the river like they did with the steelworkers. They can't send our jobs to Japan."

Hast said that what is happening at UPMC McKeesport is a "small representation of what UPMC nurses have to deal with every day. The men and women who aren't in the union have to deal with these issues daily and they really can't do much about it."

Connie Baker, RN, said there "aren't enough nurses to go around and the patients are getting short-changed. Jeffrey Romoff and others need to know about this. Every patient deserves to receive quality care."

She has been in nursing for 25 years and said there have been nursing shortages before. "But we knew they would end. The staff has been cut over and over and we don't see it coming back."

She said patient care is suffering as a result, not just in this area but throughout the country. "If you ask any nurse in the country about staffing, they will tell you the same thing. The patients are suffering and only the nurses and patients care about it."

Hlad has been involved with the negotiations and has had to schedule work days around those sessions. "I work the 3-to-11 (p.m.) and night turn shifts. I have to be off so I can go for negotiations. They knew in advance this would occur, but nothing was done so they are short with staffing when I'm not there."

Greg Riley, a nurse on the psychiatric unit at the hospital, said that during every contract negotiation, "They want more and more. Last year UPMC made $64 million. There are surgeons with spending allowances that are more than our salaries."

Referring to the financial status of the health system, Rosemary Trump, president of Local 585, said the system "Is allegedly a non-profit organization. Last year they made a $64 million profit. In the first quarter of 1999, they made a $24 million profit. If that continues, by the end of the year, they would have made a profit of over $100 million. It's time to share that profit with the workers, employees and patients. Stop making demands of cutbacks and be generous with the profits."

Evelyn Farkas, RN, said what the health system is "Doing to us is ludicrous. We are so bogged down with paperwork that the patients are in second place."

Brumfield said many bargaining dates are scheduled. "If the university is reasonable, we can settle. But I haven't seen that so far. I don't know what will happen."

Baker hopes both sides can reach an agreement before the deadline. "No one wants to go on strike because we care about the patients and that means getting staffing so people can perform better and so we can keep nurses at the hospital."