PHILADELPHIA – Nurses at the Medical College of Pennsylvania Hospital (MCP), on strike for nearly a month, rejected Tenet Health Care Corporation’s latest contract offer on Dec. 1. The issue, nurses say, is mandatory overtime. They are fed up with being forced to work overtime without notice after finishing their shift.

The basic cause for overtime work, and the nurses’ other pressing issues, is inadequate staffing. OPEIU Local 112 President Patricia Donohue says 25 percent of the nursing positions at MCP have been unfilled for a long time. This may be one of Tenet’s ways to cut back expenses in order to make a higher profit. The most recent contract presented to the nurses called for limiting the mandatory overtime but did not even mention adequate staffing. The ratio of nurses to patients at MCP is the lowest of any hospital in the area.

Research shows the nurse-patient ratio can mean the difference between life and death. The odds of a hospital patient dying rises by 7 percent for every patient added to the average nurse’s workload. If those nurses are already tired, surveys show their chances of making medical errors increases. Susan McCullough, a MCP Intensive-Care Unit nurse, said she was asked to look after a critically ill patient in one room at the same time a manager asked her to go to another room to keep a patient from climbing out of bed. “You can’t be in one room trying to keep someone’s heart rate and blood pressure going and be in another room trying to keep another patient from climbing out of bed and injuring himself,” said McCullough. The critically ill patient died the next day.

Many nurses do not wish to work in hospitals because of the working conditions. According to the American Nursing Association, of the 2.7 million licensed registered nurses in the U.S., only 2.2 million are employed in the profession. The association believes that many of those 500,000 nurses would return to bedside care in hospitals if hospitals were committed to hiring large enough staffs to keep nurse-to-patient ratios at a safe level.

Since the MCP nurses have been on strike, the hospital has had to close its trauma unit. The number of inpatients being treated has dropped from an average of 120-150 to an average of 60-80. Morale at MCP is low due to rumors that Tenet Health Corporation may sell or close the hospital. Tenet owns six other hospitals in the Philadelphia area.

The city of Philadelphia is a medical center and nurses are in demand. Some of the MCP nurses are working part time in other hospitals while on strike. But the community suffers when nurses can’t have the working conditions to do the excellent job they want to do. OPEIU Local 112 is looking into many options. One is binding federal arbitration to resolve the dispute.

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