Chestnut Hill Hospital workers on strike for higher wages

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Gary Canada (forefront), vice president of the Chestnut Hill faction of SEIU Healthcare PA, and a certified nursing assistant at Chestnut Hill Hospital, marches with other hospital workers outside the hospital during a strike on Saturday, July 23, 2016.

About 150 health-care and service workers at Chestnut Hill Hospital participated in a strike Saturday, calling for higher wages.

The strike was organized by the Service Employees International Union Healthcare Pennsylvania, which represents certified nursing assistants, emergency room technicians, workers who move patients around in wheelchairs and stretchers, secretaries, food workers and cleaners.

Gary Canada, 54, vice president of the Chestnut Hill faction of SEIU Healthcare PA, and a certified nursing assistant at the hospital, at 8835 Germantown Ave. in Chestnut Hill, said the union has been in negotiations with hospital management for about two months.

The union is seeking annual 2 percent pay increases for its workers, who are paid less than their counterparts at other hospitals in the city, he said.

The strike began at 7 a.m. Saturday and will last until 7 a.m. Sunday, when workers will go back to work, he said.

Picketing outside the hospital was to end at 7 p.m. Saturday, Canada said.

Outside the hospital Saturday morning, workers marched and shouted chants, including: "Ain't no use in looking down, ain't no contract on the ground, Chestnut Hill can't you see, fair wages mean a lot to me."

They also held up signs, including one that read: "Chestnut Hill is the lowest-paying hospital in the vicinity."

Canada said the union represents about 210 workers made up of nearly 130 certified nursing assistants, workers who transport patients in wheelchairs or stretchers, secretaries and emergency room technicians who are employed directly by the hospital, plus 80 workers who provide food and cleaning services who are employed by a subcontractor.

Hospital spokeswoman Catherine Brzozowski said in an emailed statement that the hospital "is continuing to provide high-quality care for patients."

She said of those employees striking who were scheduled to work Saturday, 74 percent "of their shifts have been covered by other SEIU members who have chosen to work. Emergency, inpatient, and surgery services are available, and all outpatient and diagnostic procedures are taking place as planned; all public entrances remain open."

Specifically, she wrote that of "the 38 service and maintenance shifts scheduled [Saturday], 28 are being staffed by SEIU-represented hospital employees."

She said the hospital remains "committed to the collective bargaining process and to maintaining a positive relationship with our employees and their bargaining agents." Negotiations with the union, she said, are continuing under the auspices of a federal mediator.

Canada, asked whether there were union members who chose to work Saturday, said of the hospital's statement: "I think the person you spoke to exaggerated numbers."

He said he heard of only two emergency room technicians who crossed the picket line to go into work.

The 28 workers, he said, are not SEIU workers, but were brought in by the subcontractor from out of state to provide food and cleaning services.

Of the 210 hospital workers represented by the union, he estimated that 90 percent support the strike, although not all could participate because some had prior commitments. A smaller group also was scheduled to stand outside the hospital from about 10:30 p.m. to midnight Saturday to monitor if anyone were to cross the picket line, he said.

He said he did not know how many of the striking employees were scheduled to work Saturday. The union gave the hospital 10 days' notice of the strike, he said.

About 12:30 p.m. Saturday, the picketers marched with a band, chanting "Corporate greed has got to go," from the hospital to the Chestnut Hill Hotel several blocks away at 8229 Germantown Ave., then back. Onlookers clapped their hands, Canada said.

"It seemed like the whole neighborhood was there for us," he said.

Canada said the low wages at the hospital results in a high turnover, with workers leaving for other hospitals in the city. Starting wages for sanitation workers are about $10 an hour; for workers who push patients in wheelchairs about $12 or $13 an hour; and for certified nursing assistants about $14 an hour, he said.

He said he has worked as a certified nursing assistant at the hospital for 25 years and gets paid $17.80 an hour, making him one of the more highly paid workers.

Canada, who lives in Germantown, said he had moved closer to the hospital for the job; other workers, he said, live farther away.

The next round of contract negotiations is scheduled for Aug. 23, but Canada said he hopes a resolution can be reached earlier.

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