by George Maroukis and Mitch Troutman
How many dishes can a waitress carry? How many students can a teacher teach? More importantly, what happens when they are given too many? That’s the theme of the classic I Love Lucy scene from the 1950s, where she works in a chocolate factory that slowly speeds up the production line until she can’t keep up. TV being light hearted, Lucy tries to hide the chocolates she misses by stuffing her face and shirt. The boss informs Lucy, “If one piece of candy gets past you and into the packing room unwrapped, YOU’RE FIRED.” In real life, there is no humor in this speed-up, especially when it comes to hospitals.
Now imagine that you are a nurse and those chocolates are your patients, and not just random patients, but your neighbors, your friends, and your family members from the greater Pottsville area.
Just as the conveyor belt speeds up the demand on Lucy to package chocolates at an incapable speed, LVHN’s practices to extract wealth from its employees has intensified since its acquisition of Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center and the Pottsville Hospital and Warne Clinic in 2008. Do more with less.
For me (George) this is personal. Much like most of the people in Schuylkill County, I was born in the Pottsville hospital system, as were generations of our community. So many of us have memories of profound life events happening at this hospital. Thirty years later and then 1,600 miles away, I would receive a random message from a childhood friend who was employed through LVHN, asking me if I knew my grandfather was under their care. I did not know this information due to being activated for military deployment to Afghanistan. My friend would end up watching over my grandfather’s comfort as his time was coming to an end.
My grandfather was one in an untenable number of patients to be cared for by the nursing staff at LVHN. The healthcare provided to our people in the greater Pottsville area depended on the ratio of nurses to patients. How many nurses does it take to care for thirty-two patients? Really, it depends on the unit. Nursing organizations recommend 1 nurse to every 4 patients in Medical/Surgical; Pottsville goes up to 1:10 in this wing of the hospital. Psychiatrics and Telemetry are just as bad. Of course departments like the ER or maternity can’t control how many people are coming in the door, but these units are consistently understaffed too. This is a major part of the problem we have here in Pottsville, and that’s what LVHN nurses are organizing to fix. And they already have: since going public with their fight, Pottsville has blocked off beds to reduce ratios, but the solution needs to be more nurses, not less patients.
“They don’t want the union here”
Brandee Siegfried and Chrissy Newton are nurses who have been there longer than LVHN, which took over Pottsville Hospital and the Good Sam back in 2008. In fact, they got their RN degrees together at the hospital and have since put 13 years into caring for our community. In the old hospital, supervisors and directors knew their names, would say hello, and could be seen wearing scrubs. Many administrators had been former union nurses and understood it was a collaboration between union and hospital that provided the smoothest operations and best outcomes.
That changed with LVHN. Supervisors who had once been in the union were weeded out. The environment became less focused on providing health care and more orientated towards the business of healthcare. Decisions are now relayed from executives in Allentown via supervisors who see nurses as machines.
The number of nurses-per-patient has steadily shrank. The patients who see it most clearly are the ones who are hospitalized. Brandee said, “Their biggest complaint is their bell’s not answered quick enough, the nurse isn’t in there long enough. They have to go to the bathroom and they have to wait.” But the weight of extra work falls most squarely on the nurses themselves. When you are overloaded, you are going to choose someone else’s health over your own needs, leaving no time for food, water, or the bathroom, let alone just an old-fashioned break.
Nursing already has a high burnout rate, and this situation makes it that much worse. The stress drives away experienced nurses, graduates don’t want to stay, and traveling nurses don’t want to be assigned here.
Amidst COVID-19, management decided it’s time to get rid of the union. They’ve given “shared success” bonus pay exclusively to non-union workers, along with other perks like paid time off, gym benefits, and even paying adoption fees should a non-union worker want a dog. They’ve even forced nurses to remove union buttons (and are facing a labor violation over it). The nurses’ union contract has expired, and LVHN has refused to seriously negotiate.
In some ways this has backfired. Many non-union nurses feel the perks are unfair and are uncomfortable receiving them when others who work just as hard do not. It also roused what has otherwise been a sleepy union. Brandee has been union secretary for a decade, through which the union was quite meek, accepting contracts with little argument. But Chrissy only recently became active: “You knew that this time there was going to be a fight. You felt the change in the hospital, you felt it.” She joined the bargaining committee to represent the maternity unit.
While the union only covers a portion of RNs, they feel like they are fighting for everyone at the hospital. According to Brandee, “it’s not just the nurses who are short staffed, it’s the other departments too. It’s not just about us—we don’t have nurses’ aids. We don’t have LPNs. We don’t have lab techs.” She believes that a good contract, with a focus on safety and good ratios, will force LVHN to improve conditions for all the other workers, too.
Our region, our health, our situation can be better. It’s the nurse’s union that can and must enforce it. It is the rest of us who need to have their backs and show our support. People will tell us to give up and give in—that demanding a bit of dignity is biting the hand that feeds.
But this hand that feeds literally runs on the blood of our community. LVHN’s willful neglect to appropriately staff our hospital leaves our community vulnerable. This type of profit-centered healthcare enacts violence on our people. When your daughter goes to the hospital with a broken arm, when your brother is unknowingly bleeding internally after sport accident, when your mother falls out of the hospital bed while in recovery, or when your father is complaining of chest pain and has had a heart attack, when these issues occur and they are not helped in a timely manner due to staffing numbers, that is violence.
The situation only exists because of LVHN’s actions to better their bottom line by denying our healthcare workers their rights, and by robbing our community of quality healthcare. Either we demand more from them, or we let them rob us.
Here are some things you can do to show your support to LVHN nurses:
- Sign this Petition demanding LVHN negotiate fairly with the nurses’ union and improve ratios. Signing it will also email the LVHN board of directors.
- Follow the nurses on Facebook and Twitter. If they call for action, show up.
- Thursday May 13 at 4:30pm, Frackville, PA: nurses will be demonstrating outside of Rep. Tim Twardzik’s office. Twardzik sits on the Board of Directors at LVHN and serves on the PA House Health Committee.
- Reach out to nurses you know, union or not, and let them know you’ve got their back. The better they are treated, the better we are treated.
George Maroukis is a member of Anthracite Unite and a resident of Schuylkill County.
Mitch Troutman is a writer, educator, organizer, and jack-of-all-trades living in Central Pennsylvania. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Bootleg Coal Rebellion: The Pennsylvania Miners Who Seized an Industry, 1925-1942.