Nurses go out on strike at Lower Bucks and Suburban Community hospitals just before the holiday weekend

Both hospitals are owned by California-based Prime Healthcare. Unionized registered nurses will strike through Dec. 26.

Maria Valleto holds a sign that reads

Maria Valletto, an ICU nurse at Lower Bucks Hospital, at a rally of striking nurse and supporters outside the hospital on December 22, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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‘Tis the season to … strike.

Outside Lower Bucks Hospital in Bristol, a crowd of people formed picket lines to support unionized registered nurses as they walked off the job Friday morning.

More than 200 employees that work at Lower Bucks and Suburban Community Hospital in Norristown marked the first of a five-day joint strike against parent company, Prime Healthcare, following stalled contract negotiations.

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Striking nurses hold signs and walk at the picket line outside of Lower Bucks Hospital
Striking nurses at Lower Bucks Hospital picketed outside the main entrance on December 22, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Nurses accused California-based Prime of divesting health care services in local communities, and are asking facility owners for higher wages, expanded health insurance benefits, and better staffing levels.

“We want to get back at the bedside, that’s where we want to be,” said ICU nurse Shirley Crowell, co-president of the Nurses Association at Lower Bucks Hospital. “Our local leadership I believe is supportive, but they don’t really have a whole lot of power. It’s Prime out in California that needs to see this hospital is vital to this community.”

Workers will strike at both hospitals through Dec. 26.

A giant inflatable lawn ornament of Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch sat on the front lawn of Lower Bucks Hospital along Bath Road.

Nurses and supporters on the picket line held signs that read, “Prime is on the naughty list,” “All I want for Christmas is quality health care,” and “Only a Grinch would take away our staffing.”

In a statement, Prime officials said they continue to bargain in good faith with union workers and said their proposals have so far included wage increases and a “valuable health care plan.”

But Maria Valletto, an ICU nurse at Lower Bucks, said wage proposals have fallen short.

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“The increase is not comparable to competitive rates,” she said. “We were heroes a couple years ago and now there’s this 1% increase or 2% increase — that’s just not appropriate for what we do, and everybody out here feels the same way for sure.”

Lower wages have also made it more difficult to attract and retain nurses at the hospital, Valletto said, adding that the current employees’ health benefits plan is too restrictive.

“There’s been plenty of nurses that have been denied certain forms of care, being told where they have to go see this doctor or that doctor,” she said. “Myself, I just recently had a baby. During my pregnancy, it was a battle to get certain care.”

Nurses at Suburban Community Hospital said they’re seeing the same problems, especially staffing issues after Prime instituted layoffs in September. Shannon Giambrone, an ICU nurse in Norristown, said striking was a last resort.

“People will look at us and say, ‘What does that say for you that you walked away from your patients?’” Giambrone said. “That will say that we made the hardest decision of our lives to effect change for the long-term, because if we keep slapping a Band-Aid on this problem for this company, they will continue to take advantage of our patients, and we have finally stood up and said enough is enough.”

Anna Carlin (left) and Shirley Crowell (right) at the nurses union picket line
Anna Carlin (left) and Shirley Crowell (right), ICU nurses and co-presidents of the Nurses Association of Lower Bucks Hospital, lead chants at the picket of other striking nurses and supporters on December 22, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The hospitals will remain open with temporary staffing and resources to fill any gaps during the strike and throughout the holidays, Prime officials said, and stated that some staff “made the decision to put patients first by crossing the picket line.”

The strike will end when union members return to scheduled shifts at 7 a.m. on Dec. 27.

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