Week 7: Nurse-strikers replaced, pickets linger

Jerry Blevins has stood for weeks on a picket line with his fellow nurses, thinking about his mortgage, his tearful wife, his four children.

It‘s been a stressful seven weeks for the 750 registered nurses at Appalachian Regional Healthcare, the region‘s largest hospital system, which has nine facilities in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. Six hundred nurses have refused to cross the picket line.

After weeks of stalemate, negotiators on both sides of the bargaining table indicated this week that some progress has come from talks with a federal mediator and state officials. Negotiations were to resume Friday and continue through the weekend.

However, the strike has taken an emotional and financial toll on his family, he said.

ARH President and CEO Jerry Haynes, a native of the Harlan County mountain region, said he appreciates the conviction of those on the line.

Labor strife is as familiar in these Appalachian hills as poverty and poor health. Blevin‘s own Harlan County, home to several century-old coal-mining communities, has a history of violent labor fights. Attempts to organize miners in the 1930s drew national attention to "Bloody Harlan."

"In most rural areas, the hospitals tend to be the largest employer in the area," said Kenneth Troske, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Kentucky. "Unfortunately, that gives the hospital more power than in other places, especially in the labor market.

So far, about 125 positions vacated by striking nurses have been filled and nearly 175 nurses have crossed the picket line. ARH is relying on nursing supervisors, temporary nurses, licensed practical nurses and nurses‘ aides to fill the gaps.

The pay range for ARH nurses is $47,000 to $65,000 — far above the $39,000 median household income in Kentucky. In Appalachia, more than a quarter of the population lives below the federal poverty level. Few other jobs, beyond coal mining, offer better wages or compensation, Troske said.

Haynes denied the claims, saying federal and state regulators have never cited ARH for poor care or staffing ratios. Payroll documents offered by ARH show that nurses on average worked 2.5 hours mandatory overtime a week.

"Do I think we have a problem sometimes? Yes. Are we perfect? Absolutely not," Haynes said. "Is it management‘s intent to work short and not provide care to our patients? No."


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