A second strike against Rochester General Hospital authorized by Rochester Union of Nurses and Allied Professionals in a vote last week would send the union’s 900 members off the job for five days later this month.
In the Oct. 11 poll, 91 percent of the union’s members voted to authorize the action, says Gillian Kingsley, RUNAP negotiating team member.
“We are extremely disappointed that RUNAP has decided to conduct a second strike-authorization vote and are planning to strike again,” hospital officials said in a statement issued last week.
The decision to strike is not cast in stone, however.
Says Kingsley: “We have told RGH that we are committed to keep negotiating and we are available to meet every day leading up to the strike to settle this contract.”
For its part, hospital officials say they “are actively negotiating and showing up at each session ready to make progress towards an agreement.”
The 528-bed RGH is the flagship hospital of the five-hospital Rochester Regional Health system. The area’s second-largest hospital has been in first-contract negotiations with RUNAP for 12 months. So far, the union’s and the hospital’s positions do not seem close.
Key issues the union cites as unresolved are wages and staffing. Maintaining that subpar nursing pay has contributed to high nurse turnover, RUNAP contends that the hospital suffers from chronic understaffing.
RUNAP’s strike warning comes a week after the union released a report contending that understaffing is compromising patient safety at RGH. The RUNAP report cites staffing numbers compiled by its own members on work shifts and poor ratings given to RGH by the nonprofit Leapfrog Group and the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
RGH denies the union’s understaffing claims. To counter RUNAP’s patient-safety charges, RGH cites its recent inclusion on U.S. News and World Report’s Best Regional Hospitals list and on Healthgrades’ 50 Best Hospitals list. It also says its readmission and mortality rates are in line with the national rate.
Despite the union’s claims to the contrary, RGH maintains that it has “moved significantly” on wage and staffing issues in contract talks. The hospital cites its proposals to boost nurses’ pay by 20 percent over four years and to put RUNAP members on a staffing committee as proof of its good faith.
Using hourly rates paid to unionized nurses at Syracuse and Buffalo hospitals as a baseline, the union has derided the hospital’s wage proposals as insufficient.
Both nearby upstate cities are within driving distance for RGH nurses and many seeking better working conditions and higher pay are tempted to leave to work in Buffalo or Syracuse, RUNAP bargaining committee member Phoebe Sheehan told the Rochester Beacon in a recent interview.
A nurse in RGH’s cardiac intensive care unit, Sheehan cited some dozen former colleagues she personally knows to have made such moves.
Under the hospital’s staffing proposals, “management would still control the staffing committee” because frontline nurses would not have equal say, potentially leaving units the union maintains are understaffed at unsafe levels, Kingsley contends.
In a previous statement, RGH denied that any of the hospitals’ units are consistently understaffed and cited improving nurse-retention rates.
If a second strike does take place, the union plans the walkout to begin Oct. 23 at 7 a.m. The five-day strike would follow a two-day walkout RUNAP staged in early August.
RGH says the August action cost it $6 million in money spent to hire nursing temps known as travel nurses to replace striking RUNAP nurses. A second, longer walkout would cost even more, cutting into money RGH could put into patient services and nurse pay hikes, the hospital warns.
Supplied by temporary staffing agencies, travel nurses typically make up to three times as much in hourly wages as regular staff.
RRH CEO Chip Davis previously cited travel nurse costs as a factor contributing to the system’s red ink. Travel nurse costs rose from $9 million in 2019 to $200 million in 2020. During the same span, the system’s operating income margin fell to a negative 1.5 percent last year from a positive 1.5 percent in 2018, Davis said.
Still, while decrying RUNAP’s demands as unaffordable, RRH recently unilaterally gave substantial pay hikes to medical residents. In a letter announcing the resident pay hike, RRH chief medical officer Robert Mayo M.D. called the raise a partial response to unspecified concerns residents had raised.
Protesting grueling hours and low pay, medical residents at hospitals and health systems across the country have increasingly unionized.
As doctors have moved from private practice to employment by health systems and hospitals, physicians have also unionized. Most recently, some 400 doctors, physicians assistants and nurse practitioners employed by Minneapolis-based Allina Health System voted last week to form a union.
Like the RUNAP nurses, Allina clinicians say they want more say in patient-care decisions. Like RGH, Allina officials expressed disappointment at the union drive.
RGH and RUNAP paint starkly different pictures of how the Rochester nurses’ union’s contract talks are going.
While the union has grown increasingly impatient with what it sees as the crawling pace of negotiations, RGH, citing a 2022 Bloomberg Law study that found first-contract negotiations typically take 15 months to conclude, sees the talks as on track.
“RGH remains committed to bargaining in good faith,” the hospital says.
The hospital has pushed back hard against the union and has not always avoided unfair labor practices, Kingsley claims.
RGH has, for example, retaliated against nurses for union activity and deprived some units of full representation at the bargaining table, the RUNAP nurse charges.
The hospital has also destroyed union communications, retaliated against nurses for using legally protected strong language in union communications, and made unilateral changes to policies that were active subjects of bargaining and then disciplined nurses for violating its newly declared policies, she further claims.
Asked to respond to the union’s unfair labor practice claims, hospital officials said in a statement, “Rochester General Hospital denies committing any unfair labor practices and has not retaliated against any union employees for their union activity/involvement. We unconditionally respect our team members’ rights to unionize. RGH values its nurses and will continue to meet them in good faith at the bargaining table.”
In an email sent last week to RGH employees, hospital president Tammy Snyder portrayed support among union members for the August RUNAP strike as tepid. According to Snyder, only 48 percent of RUNAP nurses slated to work walked off the job on the strike’s first day while 50 percent stayed out on day two.
“Despite the union’s claims, support for the strike seemed to be very limited,” Snyder concluded.
Citing sign-in sheets RUNAP kept to tally its members’ participation in the August strike, Kingsley disputes Snyders’ calculations. She says the union’s tally shows that 90 percent of RUNAP nurses stayed out on both days.
RGH stands by the calculations Snyder cited, an RRH spokeswoman says.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].