Labor unrest: Nursing strike threats, meal-break lawsuits occur amid record mass layoffs

Hospital labor relations have gone from prickly to downright thorny. Mass layoffs (i.e., layoffs of 50 or more employees) at hospitals reached a record high in April, excluding anomalous September 2005 and its hospital shutdowns post-Hurricane Katrina. Mass layoffs continue to impact multiple markets, and even some historically exempt clinicians are in the mix, reports the American Medical News.

This month, at least five hospital systems have already announced mass layoffs. Pittsburgh-based West Penn Allegheny Health System has notified the state of Pennsylvania that up to 344 positions are at risk due to its decision to stop providing hospital inpatient and emergency services at Allegheny General Hospital Suburban Campus in Bellevue, reports the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Springfield, Mass.-based Sisters of Providence Health System will lay off 135 full-time employees, including more than 60 patient care technicians, at Mercy Medical Center and other local facilities, reports CBS-3 Springfield News. Community Medical Centers in Fresno, Calif., will lay off 150 employees throughout the health system, reports CBS47-TV. According to the Denver Business Journal, Exempla Healthcare in Denver, which is run by Lenexa, Kan.-based Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health System, will cut 100 positions, including some patient-care jobs, at Saint Joseph Hospital and other facilities. And Maricopa Integrated Health System in Phoenix has laid off 87 employees as part of a move to trim 145 positions, reports the Arizona Republic.

Given this landscape, hospital executives could be forgiven for assuming that labor is plentiful and compliant. However, nurses are on the brink of becoming an endangered species, reports the Washington Post. Roughly one-third of nurses are at least 50 years old, and 55 percent expect to retire within 10 years, according to a survey by the Bernard Hodes Group. Nursing programs aren't churning out graduates fast enough to replace those pending departures (to the tune of a projected 300,000-nurse shortage), says Peter Buerhaus, a professor at Vanderbilt University. Current turnover rates also are problematic. Florida lost three registered nurses for every five the state added over the past two years, and the annual nursing turnover at Florida hospitals averages 15 percent according to the Florida Center for Nursing, reports the Miami Herald.

Nor are nurses compliant. Fresh off a June 10 one-day strike, some 12,000 nurses in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area will decide on June 21 whether to conduct a full open-ended strike, reports the Star Tribune. (Sixty-six percent of the nurses must vote yes, and the union would have to give the 14 hospitals involved in the stalled contract negotiations at least 10 days notice prior to a second walkout.) However, the union also has expressed a willingness to bend on its demands and has invited the hospitals to resume negotiations on June 22. A judicial order prevented the California Nurses Association (CNA) from participating in the one-day June 10 strike at University of California (UC) medical centers. However, the CNA continues to press its case for better staffing while awaiting a June 18 hearing that will determine whether its nurses can strike legally at UC facilities, reports the Bay Citizen.

Adding to the woes of hospital management, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Unemployment Compensation has decided that the nurses and other staff who earlier this year held a 28-day strike at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia are eligible for unemployment compensation because the strike was technically a lockout, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. The decision, which Temple will appeal, states that "unilateral modification of an existing collective bargaining agreement by an employer constitutes a lockout under the law and allows an employee to receive benefits."

In other news, employee lawsuits over unpaid meal breaks have become something of a trend. Two employees at hospitals owned by Nashville, Tenn.-based HCA Inc.-- Northeast Methodist Hospital in Live Oak, Texas, and Menorah Medical Center in Overland Park, Kan.--have filed a lawsuit charging that HCA regularly required them to stay on duty during unpaid meal breaks, reports the Nashville Business Journal. The plaintiffs seek class-action status.

To learn more:
- read this Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article
- read this CBS-3 Springfield News report
- take a look at this CBS47-TV piece
- read this Denver Business Journal article
- review this Arizona Republic article
- read this Washington Post article
- read this Miami Herald article
- check out these Star Tribune articles: article 1, article 2 and article 3
- read this Bay Citizen article
- read this Philadelphia Inquirer article