As part of a growing trend of labor disputes among the nation’s nursing workforce, the nurses union at Allegheny General Hospital (AGH) in Pennsylvania is rallying to protest what it sees as substandard working conditions, with a strike remaining a real possibility as the union’s current contract expires in October.
Union’s Demands: Increased Staffing, Safety Measures, and Fair Compensation
Roughly 1,200 members of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania at AGH are working under a contract negotiated in 2020. Negotiations are anticipated to begin in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, 4,200 other union members at six area hospitals will begin re-negotiating their own member contracts. AGH nurses are calling for additional staff to ease nurse workloads, increased safety measures to protect nurses, and wages that reflect the value of their work.
“We’ve watched one experienced nurse after another leave. We’ve been short-staffed. We’ve picked up extra shifts and more shifts on top of that. We’ve trained traveling nurses to do our job for three times the pay. We’ve been assaulted and verbally abused by patients and visitors,” said Katrina Rectenwald, union chapter president and an ICU nurse at AGH, told TribLIVE. “Nurses are angry, fed up and, quite frankly, we need to see real changes to keep nurses at the bedside.”
A Nationwide Trend: Nurse Strikes Emerge Across the Country
AGH is not alone. Unionized nurses across the country are striking or suggesting the possibility of future nurse strikes as contracts end. Many nurses cite inadequate staffing, safety measures, and unfair compensation as primary drivers.
Nursing Strikes: A Recent Timeline
In 2020, AGH nurses negotiated a contract that took effect before the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, working conditions for nurses became even more challenging due to the high volume of patients, difficulties accessing enough PPE, and occasionally facing patients resistant to evidence-based treatment.
While the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer a crisis, nurses have repeatedly made clear that their high stress levels and workloads have not significantly improved. Many nurses have left nursing through dissatisfaction or retirement, so the remaining nurses are still heavily overburdened.
In 2022, a National Nurses United survey reported that nurses were experiencing multiple workplace stressors and challenges, including:
- Staffing shortages
- Being “floated” (temporarily transferred) to units outside their area of expertise
- Experiencing mental health issues during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Excessive overtime
- More workplace violence
Recent nurse strikes or proposed strikes include:
- Willimantic, Connecticut (started September 2022)
- Twin Cities, Minnesota (started September 2022)
- Oakland, California (started December 2022)
- Wichita, Kansas and Austin, Texas (started June 2023)
- Portland, Oregon (started June 2023)
- Honolulu, Hawaii (started July 2023)
- New Brunswick, New Jersey (started July 2023)
Nurses in Northern California, Kalamazoo, and Minnesota successfully negotiated raises of 17% or more over the next three years after strikes or threatened strikes.
Hospital Administration’s Response
In response to the nurse union members, the AGH hospital administration said it respects the rights of nurses to organize and participate in activities that do not affect the hospital’s ability to care for patients.
“We are committed to offering employees at every level – including both represented and non-represented members of the workforce – wages and benefits that are fair and competitive in the market, and a work-life experience that is fulfilling and conducive to the delivery of high-quality health care services,” said administration spokesperson Dan Laurent in a statement to CBS News. “We are committed to bargaining in good faith with our represented employees to reach agreements that live up to those standards.”
Advocating for Change at the State Level: The Patient Safety Act
Nurses throughout Pennsylvania are also working for change at the state level. The Patient Safety Act, which passed the Pennsylvania House in late June and is approaching the Senate, specifies the minimum required nursing staff ratios for hospital units.
Balancing Patient Care and Nurse Strikes: The Impact on Patient Outcomes
Thousands of patient beds may be affected during nurse strikes, depending on the number of striking nurses and whether the hospital hires travel nurses and other interim nurses.
When nurses strike, patient outcomes can suffer. A study of a New York strike found that in-hospital deaths increased by 19.4%, and hospital readmissions grew by 6.5% during a strike. Both nurses and administrations declare that they do not take this lightly.