Venus Russell starts her days at 7 a.m. by filing all the paperwork that landed on her desk overnight. She answers the phone for family members calling to check in on their loved ones and coordinates patients’ medical charts and lab results.
Russell has been working as a unit secretary at Chestnut Hill Hospital for three-and-a-half years, and many of her colleagues have been there for decades. Last week, they were told their positions would be eliminated as of Nov. 10.
“I’ve got people coming to me about it crying,” said Russell, who is vice president of the local chapter of her union, SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania.
“Like, if they say I’m not a good fit for this job, then what’s left for me?”
Russell is one of 55 unit secretaries at two hospitals run by Reading-based Tower Health who are losing their jobs, according to the union.
Tower also is eliminating a part-time patient greeter position and assigning the duties of patient “sitters,” responsible for sitting with high-needs patients, to nurses assistants. Tower did not respond to a request for the total number of affected workers.
Unit secretaries at Pottstown and Chestnut Hill were all invited to apply for a newly created position, the duties for which will be expanded to include patient care and rounds. Management will consider former unit secretaries for the new job, depending on their qualifications, though there will be fewer of the new jobs available. Russell said the new job will pay about $14 an hour compared to the $17.50 she currently earns.
“It’s a lot more work for less money,” said Russell, who is a single parent with two teenage sons at home and helps support her daughter’s child. “There’s no way that that pay cut would be conducive to my environment.”
In a statement, Tower Health said it would do its best to work with all affected employees, the union and the nursing leadership at the hospitals.
“We will transition as many impacted staff as possible into the new Unit Support Coordinator position or to other positions at the hospitals or within Tower Health, depending upon their job qualifications,” a spokeswoman wrote.
Russell said she had heard from nurses concerned that expanding the duties of the unit secretaries would mean that nurses would be pulled away more often from patients to do clerical work.
Tower Health bought Pottstown and Chestnut Hill Hospitals in 2017, along with Brandywine, Jennersville and Phoenixville Hospitals, for $418 million. Its flagship hospital is in Reading. The company is now in the process of purchasing St. Christopher’s Children’s Hospital for $50 million from Philadelphia Academic Health System, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy this summer as part of the process for shutting down Hahnemann University Hospital. Tower will manage St. Christopher’s alongside Drexel University.
Russell witnessed the management transition from Tennessee-based Community Health Systems to Tower a couple of years back, and said consolidation was only one of the many issues that have concerned her since Tower took over. She cited problems with outdated equipment, substandard patient care, and racial tensions.
“We were told we couldn’t sit in the lobby because it looked like a ghetto street corner,” Russell said. “It’s like a lot of things have gotten worse — it almost feels like we’re being policed.”
She said she was so troubled by the quality of patient care she witnessed at Chestnut Hill Hospital that in anticipation of Tower’s upcoming takeover of St. Christopher’s, she has switched her sons’ and grandchild’s care from St. Christopher’s to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“It’s a little further for me, but I’d rather deal with that than what I know is coming,” she said.
Tower operated at a loss of $167.9 million in the fiscal year ending June 30.