Gracedale registered nurses, social workers consider strike as contract negotiations fail
March 27-- Mar. 27--Gracedale's most highly trained nurses could strike this week after contract negotiations with Northampton County failed Monday night.
Jerry Green, president of United Steelworkers Local 2599, said Tuesday morning that about 50 registered nurses and social workers rejected the last and best offer made by the administration of County Executive Lamont McClure. Green would not provide the vote total but said the margin was greater than 2-to-1 against the deal.
Green anticipated that union members will hold a second vote by the end of this week on whether or not to authorize a strike. If they do authorize a strike, Green said, the bargaining team would honor that vote and call for members to walk off the job.
"We're sending the message to the county we're not happy," he said.
The county offered a raise but the two sides are separated on what the appropriate amount should be.
If they authorize a strike, they would be required to go before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board and could not legally walk out until after that process, typically about 20-30 days.
The Steelworkers union went without a contract between 2011 and 2015, and nurses are looking for a significant pay increase to make up for those years of stagnant wages, Green said. The union had difficulty negotiating with former executives John Stoffa and John Brown. While McClure's offer was an improvement, Green said, it was not enough to bridge the gap.
"The wages weren't what they figured they should be getting," Green said. "They were concerned [Gracedale is] not hiring, and a lack of resident care. I've got to give credit to Lamont. He's trying."
McClure was effusive Tuesday in his praise for the nurses and caregivers at Gracedale, saying their dedication to residents is what makes the facility special. He also maintained support for unions to collectively bargain and potentially strike if they don't feel they're getting a fair deal.
However, he said his administration's offer would have granted nurses and social workers a compounding 8.5 percent raise over three years and lowered their health care costs.
Due in part to overtime pay, the average registered nurse earned $77,900 last year, McClure said. By comparison, McClure's salary is set at $85,000 by the home rule charter. The average social worker earned $48,400. Their contract expired Dec. 31.
If workers do strike, it would be a black eye for McClure, who made his name in county government by joining with Gracedale supporters and employees to block a proposed sale of the nursing home in 2011 with a public referendum. Leaders of county unions attended McClure's campaign kickoffs, and he pledged to work with Gracedale employees to improve conditions at the Upper Nazareth Township nursing home after being elected county executive.
"I would hope they would have a change of heart," McClure said. "Now that the threat of a strike has been made, we will have a contingency plan in place to make sure the care of our patients is not compromised," he said.
The Steelworkers union makes up a small percentage of the staff at Gracedale, accounting for about 50 of the 788 authorized positions. However, the registered nurses in particular serve a key role in the nursing home's operations, said Dawn TuersFeldman, Gracedale's director of nursing. Each of the nursing home's 16 units has a registered nurse assigned to it, and they're tasked with assessing residents whose health conditions change, such as in a medical emergency, she said. Registered nurses also assist with admissions by assessing a patient's overall health, TuersFeldman said.
Frustrations with the work conditions at Gracedale spilled into public discussion last week during Northampton County Council's regular meeting. During public comment, several nurses told council that lingering vacancies and high levels of call-outs have left staff burned out and interfered with their private lives.
Tonya Dipierdomenico, a registered nurse with the Steelworkers, called on the county to increase their pay, saying that other nursing homes and hospitals offer better wages. While the county generally offers better health care and a pension, that's not enough to attract younger workers, who tend to be healthier and are years away from retirement.
"The morale is at an all-time low. We feel completely degraded," she said. "I leave my job crying."
TuersFeldman and Director of Human Services Susan Wandalowski said that while vacancies and call-outs are serious problems at the nursing home, things have improved over the last year. The county offers free training for students to become certified nursing assistants, and 54 of the 70 students who passed last year stayed on with the county, they said. The average number of nursing care hours the average Gracedale resident received, a key statistic tracked by the state during inspections, went up about 20 minutes as a result, Wandalowski said.
"The data just doesn't lie. We are much better staffed now than we were a year ago," she said.
While labor disputes have popped up over the years, it's been decades since Northampton County faced a strike. Jerry Seyfried, a longtime county councilman, executive and administrator who is now retired, believed the last strike came in the early 1980s. Gracedale nurses walked off the job for about four days before then-County Executive Gene Hartzell reopened negotiations.