Nurses React to ‘Crisis’ Declaration at East Liverpool City Hospital

EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio — Still working without a contract a year after the previous one expired, nurses at East Liverpool City Hospital expressed concern Friday about the hospital’s newly-declared “crisis” status in light of soaring COVID-19 cases and a lack of nursing staff

The nurses are members of Ohio Nurses Association/East Liverpool Nurses Association Local 5903. The hospital is owned by Prime Healthcare Foundation.

Anne Mueller, ONA labor representative, said, contract negotiations began in September 2020. “And, so, now it’s a year later and no contract.”

According to Mueller, the ONA was informed about a month ago by the National Labor Relations Board that merit was found in several charges the union filed against the hospital in regard to contract negotiations.

Among those, she said, were bad faith bargaining, unlawful declaration of impasse, unlawful changes in the terms and conditions of employment and other violations of labor relations.

Nurses walked out for three days when their contract expired to show their solidarity but returned to work with the hope a contract would be reached. Mueller said there are now 20 fewer nurses on staff then were last September.

“We just don’t have enough nurses,” she said. One in-patient floor has been shut down due to insufficient staffing, she reported.

Union Vice President Melissa Cain said this means fewer patients can be admitted and that patients are being held in the emergency room. This creates an additional burden on ER staff and creates a back-up of patients in the lobby waiting to be seen, all of which causes “multiple problems,” she said.

Cain said nurses learned Thursday that patients will again be “doubled up” in rooms, which she said is not an abnormal practice. But, she said, no additional nurses are being hired to care for them.

“That’s the reason they closed the floor, because there weren’t enough nurses,” Cain emphasized.
Nurses are not applying at ELCH because wages are not competitive with other facilities, she said.

Many nurses have become “burned out and tired” and are pursuing higher education instead of working in local hospitals, according to Cain. Nurses are also contracting COVID-19 because they are constantly exposed. Even though they are vaccinated, Delta is a virulent strain of the virus.

“We can’t attract staff because we are by far the most underpaid nurses,” she lamented.
In light of this most recent surge of COVID, the union asked the hospital to reinstate “pandemic pay.” It was implemented in 2020 as a way to retain nursing staff and in recognition of nurses’ hard work in relation to the virus, Mueller said. 

“These same conditions exist now [as in 2020], and we asked for the same agreement, but they didn’t reply,” she said. 

A day after the pandemic pay request was made, Sept. 8, hospital medical director Dr. Gretchen Nickell reportedly circulated a memo to nurses and other staff. “Due to decreased staff and increased patient demands, I have designated our status as crisis,” the memo stated.

Nickell noted the hospital is experiencing “a significant increase in community numbers of COVID-19 as well as an increase in admission due to COVID.”

Nickell went on to say the crisis status “may change eligibility for testing in that more may qualify for testing … This may alter the process for medical removal for COVID-19 exposure or illness.”

Union nurses said they are not surprised by the “crisis” designation. They are, however, confused by the memo’s reference to changing eligibility for testing and altering the process for medical removal.

Mueller speculated it may mean nurses who are found to have COVID but who are asymptomatic may be required to work.

Contacts have reportedly been made to CEO Keith Richardson, the manager of human services and the chief nursing officer to ask for clarification. The union has received no response, Mueller said. 

“Because we hadn’t heard anything, we decided to ask what our members thought. Within 48 hours, we had more than 75% of our members demand that the hospital work with us on pandemic pay, bonuses, to explain the crisis declaration and to bargain in good faith,” Mueller said. 

Petitions showing those demands were dropped off for Richardson Friday, she said. 

“We knew we were in a crisis situation. Now that it has been acknowledged, what do we do about it?,” Cain said.

“We’re not trying to appear derogatory; this just needs addressed. We need Prime and the CEO to give us resolutions and solutions.”

Asked if the union is considering another work stoppage of any length, Cain replied, “I don’t want to strike. I didn’t want to the first time. Our focus is the community. We do not want to leave our hospital or our patients. We need help. We’ve been working on this for a year. We’ve stayed on top of it. We do this because we believe in this hospital and the community.”

Late Friday, the hospital released a statement:

“East Liverpool City Hospital, like every hospital in our nation, is facing a staffing challenge as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Our health care teams are providing excellent health care to our patients, all services are open, and the safety of our staff and patients is our priority.  We value our nursing team and have implemented crisis compensation programs, and health and wellness support, in addition to launching a registered nurse recruitment campaign within the region.  It is always our goal at East Liverpool City Hospital to provide our staff, nurses, and health care teams with the support they need to keep our community healthy and safe.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.