PLATTSBURGH — Dozens of nurses and other health-care professionals lined sidewalks along Cornelia Street on Thursday afternoon expressing concern about staffing levels at CVPH Medical Center.
A vibrant rhythm of plastic noise clappers attracted passers-by as members of the New York State Nurses Association stood along the roadway just beyond the CVPH grounds.
Many carried placards that said, “Not All Cuts Here,” “Be Fair to Those Who Care” and “We Need Your Help.”
Passing motorists honked, and picketers called out in appreciation of the public’s support.
“I think it’s great,” said Tammy Grom, a 25-year veteran of CVPH who currently works as a registered nurse in the Palliative Care program, as well as on floor R5.
“These nurses are from our local communities and are working for our communities,” she said. “It’s great to hear the community support.”
FEAR WEAKENED CARE
The contract between NYSNA and CVPH Medical Center expired Dec. 31, 2012, and the sides have been in negotiations since early December.
The members have continued working under the provisions of that old agreement.
Sandra Guynup, nursing representative for the CVPH nurses, said negotiations have been going well but have slowed recently with the staffing issue and concerns about competitive wages.
“They (CVPH) need to be able to recruit and retain nurses,” she said. “We’re concerned that our experienced nurses won’t be here (if salaries are not more competitive) and that (vacant) positions won’t be filled.”
“It’s all about providing safe quality care,” Grom said. “If you can’t keep experienced nurses, that weakens the care you provide.”
The hospital has proposed pay increases in each of the three years of the new contract. All employees would receive raises of at least 4 percent over the contract agreement, and some would get as much as a 14 percent increase when factoring in steps associated with experience.
CVPH has also agreed to pay increases for certifications, expanded retiree benefits and more funding for staff education, a statement from the hospital said.
“Given the current economic issues surrounding health care, we feel this is a prudent and proactive offer that will continue to allow us to attract the best employees to our region,” said Vice President of Human Resources Michelle LeBeau in the release.
In 2012, CVPH reported a $5 million dollar loss. Also, the hospital laid off 17 employees, including members of the administration and management teams.
No members of management or administration will receive pay increases in 2013, the hospital stated.
NYSNA representatives feel the proposed wage increases are not sufficient to compete with other facilities in the region, however.
The hospital also initiated some new policies for staffing ratios between nurses and patients in 2012, but the nurses want specific numbers to be included in the contract.
“They have guidelines, but they are not set in the contract, so they (CVPH) don’t have to follow those guidelines if they don’t have (sufficient) staff,” Grom said, noting that specific ratios differ from unit to unit.
The new staffing guidelines have been utilized on inpatient units, but Guynup noted that other areas of the hospital, including the Emergency Department and Maternity, do not have those policies.
Erin Silk, associate director of the NYSNA Communications Department, said the issue of hospital staffing has become a statewide concern. Both the State Senate and House of Representatives are considering legislation that would limit the number of patients per nurse, she said.
NYSNA and the hospital have negotiations scheduled for May 8 and 22. A federal mediator will be in attendance for the second meeting, Guynup said.
“We will continue to work with NYSNA to discuss the current staffing models and will look for their support as we make adjustments to improve patient care and employee satisfaction,” LeBeau said.
“We value our employees and their contributions, and we respect their right to picket.
“Our responsibility to them and the patients we serve is to be wise fiscal and operational stewards, ensuring that the Medical Center continues its mission to the North Country far into the future.”
‘NEED FAIR SHAKE’
Several other union representatives joined the nurses in a show of solidarity, including the Northeast Central Labor Council and the Plattsburgh-Saranac Lake Building and Construction Trades.
“We think workers need a fair shake,” said Betty Lennon, president of the Labor Council. “The middle class is going down the drain.”
NYSNA represents more than 800 of CVPH’s 2,300 employees. Also among its membership are audiologists, physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners, pharmacists and social workers.
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