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As coronavirus cases rise, 800 Bucks County nurses go on strike over ‘dangerous’ staffing levels

The nurses at St. Mary Medical Center say they have no choice but to walk off the job as coronavirus cases surge across the region.

Stacy Cipollone, on strike along with other registered nurses, protests outside St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne on Tuesday.
Stacy Cipollone, on strike along with other registered nurses, protests outside St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne on Tuesday.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Nearly 800 nurses at a Bucks County hospital went on strike Tuesday morning over what they describe as dangerously low staffing levels that prevent them from providing high-quality care to patients.

It’s a power move for the nurses at St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne, Bucks County, one of the most profitable hospitals in the region. They’re walking off the job as coronavirus cases surge across the region — and after eight months of caring for patients in a pandemic.

The nurses, who are represented by health-care union Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP), say they have no choice but to strike now as they fear the staffing situation will only grow more dire since COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are expected to rise this winter.

Beth Redwine, a “mother and baby” nurse who had been on the picket line since it began at 7 a.m., said she and her colleagues are striking for the community.

“Truly, the reason we are out here is that, God forbid, they have to come to the hospital, we can give them the care and attention they deserve,” she said.

Redwine, 42, of Quakertown, said that during her 12-hour shifts, she often finds herself doing the work of the unit secretary and the nursing assistant because staff is stretched too thin.

It would make a huge difference, she said, if Trinity Health paid nurses better. Redwine makes about $41 an hour. She’s seen nurses leave for jobs that make $6 or $7 more per hour.

» READ MORE: 2,200 Philly-area nurses are threatening to strike during a coronavirus surge for ‘safe patient limits’

In a statement, officials from Trinity Health, the Catholic health system that owns St. Mary, said it will hire “qualified, professional agency nurses” during the strike so that St. Mary can remain open.

The strike is planned for Tuesday and Wednesday, but PASNAP nurses will not be allowed back to work by their employer until Sunday because Trinity Health officials say that’s how long it will take to safely transition work away from the replacement nurses. PASNAP says the replacement nurses were hired on a five-day contract.

The nurses at St. Mary, who voted to unionize with Pennsylvania nurses union PASNAP last year, were bargaining their first contract when COVID-19 hit. They’ve now been in negotiations for more than a year.

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Officials said the union rejected a compensation offer that is “very competitive for nurses working in Bucks County" while also taking into account the financial impact of the pandemic. They also criticized the nurses for the timing of the strike.

“We are hearing concerns from our community that PASNAP, which has placed patient safety at the center of their platform, would choose this time — when the country and our local community contend with a COVID-19 surge — to exercise their right to strike," officials said in a statement.

But COVID-19 has also made the nurses more powerful. In some ways, it’s the ideal time for them to get what they want. Sympathy for health-care workers is high — the pandemic has led essential workers to be seen as heroes. Health-care workers are in high demand.

Just how much can workers win during the pandemic? The St. Mary strike will be an early data point as labor advocates seek to answer that question. The strike will also shape worker actions to come. Two other hospitals where PASNAP represents workers — Einstein Medical Center and St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children — have authorized a strike vote.

Trinity Health, headquartered in Livonia, Mich., owns more than 90 hospitals across 22 states, including five in the Philadelphia area. The 371-bed St. Mary hospital made an average of $58 million in annual profit in the last three years, according to Trinity Health’s audited financial documents. In 2019, it was the most profitable major acute-care hospital in Southeastern Pennsylvania, after the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, according to an analysis by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council.

» READ MORE: After workers at a South Philly nursing home threatened to strike during the pandemic, they got raises and hazard pay

James Woodward, CEO of Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic, which runs Trinity’s Philadelphia-area hospitals, had total compensation of $978,092 in the year ending June 2019, a nearly 9% increase over the previous year, according to federal records. Trinity Health CEO Michael Slubowski’s total compensation was nearly $2.5 million in the year ending June 2019. By comparison, that same year, Einstein CEO Barry Freedman’s total compensation was $4 million. Clint Matthews, CEO of Tower Health, which co-owns St. Christopher’s, had a total compensation of nearly $2.8 million.

In April, Trinity Health furloughed 350 workers, or 12% of its staff, and cut executive pay by 20% in response to losses due to COVID-19.

Robert Bozek, a critical care nurse who’s worked at St. Mary’s for 12 years, said Trinity Health has chipped away at the quality of care in the last few years. It’s why he voted to join PASNAP.

For Bozek, 44, who grew up in Bucks County, this is about the health of his family and friends — people whom St. Mary’s serves.

“Trinity is not bought into Bucks County," he said. “They’re bought into Livonia. We need someone to keep them in check.”