Striking nurses look to gov't for aid

Striking nurses appealed Tuesday to the Raleigh County Commission for help in restarting stalled talks with the Appalachian Regional Hospital chain, insisting the labor dispute is about care of patients and not about financial gains in any new contract.

Commission President Pat Reed applauded the work of the nurses, many of whom sat in the audience holding picket signs, but offered no formal support by the county. “I hope this will not be an extended time,” Reed told the nurses.

Reed said she preferred to see them “back at your places doing what you do best.” “That’s not standing out on a cold night, but taking care of the people of Raleigh County,” she said.

About 160 nurses walked off the job at Beckley ARH, joining union members in eight other hospitals of the Kentucky-based chain, in a dispute centered on mandatory overtime work, which strikers say puts patients at risk.

Wayne Rebich, a local leader of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation, told the commission a Tampa, Fla., consulting firm, Yesson & Associates, is orchestrating an attempt by ARH to drive off the union (Kentucky Nurses Association/West Virginia Nurses Association) saying the company’s Web site boasts of a 96 percent rate in ridding corporations of unions.

“We need our public officials here to take a stand with these nurses to support them,” Rebich said.

“They need your support. They need a strong letter of support. It’s time for our public officials to take a stand against these people and what they’re doing to our citizens.”

Ocie Helton, president of Local 201, asked the commission to help goad ARH into resuming negotiations to get the dispute resolved so they can return to work with “a fair, equitable and sustainable contract.”

“This strike is not about money,” Helton said. “It’s about patient care.”

Nationally, she said, nurses average a patient load of eight, but at ARH, a nurse typically is looking out for 12 to 15 per shift, and, “That’s what we’re fighting.”

“We don’t have the time to give the care, and handholding, and backrubs and stuff that are very important to patients,” Helton told the commission.

“There is a huge nursing shortage nationwide. We know that. We just need to be able to get back to the table. We need to negotiate. This cannot be settled until we do that.”

Helton disputed an ARH contention that nurses are only required to put in an average of five mandatory overtime hours weekly, saying a new “flex system” forces them to work three 12-hour shifts a week, and four the next.

And, if a nurse fails to show, those on duty are forced to work a 16-hour day, she said.

“State law says there is no mandatory overtime,” Helton said. “But we know, even with state law, we’re going to do mandatory overtime. When it comes to the end of our shift, and another nurse is not there to take over our patient load, we’re not leaving. There has to be somebody to care for those patients.”

Helton said the company talks constantly about money proposals.

“They offered us this big package but it doesn’t come down to money,” Helton said. “They’re spending big money on Yesson. They say the hospital is running as usual, and it is. It’s stacked with agency nurses from out of state and all over. They’ve doubled security. There’s more security on the other side of the road than we have nurses on this side of the road. We have not, to my knowledge, done one mean thing, like trashing anything, tearing up anything. That’s not our aim. Our aim is not to close the hospital. Our aim is to keep it open with quality patient care.”


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