ST. PETERSBURG — Dozens of nurses formed a picket line outside St. Petersburg General Hospital late Monday to protest insufficient staffing levels and "dismal" wages.
The nurses, affiliated with the labor union National Nurses United, allege hospital administrators have routinely ignored the staffing plan meant to ensure high-quality patient care. They point to hospital data from December showing 44 of the 60 shifts in the Progressive Care Unit had too few nurses.
"I want to provide timely care if someone is in pain," said Roselily Story, a registered nurse with more than two decades of experience. "I don't want my patients to hurt or fall because we don't have enough help."
Story said the low staffing levels have led more nurses to skip their scheduled breaks and meals. A recent analysis found registered nurses at St. Petersburg General missed lunch 26 percent of the time, she said.
"When you work 12-hour shifts, you need that break so you can come back fresh and alert, and take care of that patient," she said.
The hospital, owned by the for-profit chain Hospital Corporation of America, declined to comment on the staffing figures provided by the nurses union. But in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, spokeswoman Pam Yarbrough said St. Petersburg General "prioritizes providing excellent, safe patient care."
"We staff appropriately to meet our patients' needs," she said.
Yarbrough blamed the picket on ongoing contract negotiations between the hospital and the nurses union. The previous three-year contract, which guaranteed pay raises and established staffing levels based on patients' medical condition and recovery stage, ended May 31.
"This kind of activity sometimes occurs when a union and an employer are engaged in negotiations for a contract, as we are with this union," Yarbrough said. "This is merely a form of demonstration and the union is legally allowed to do this."
Bargaining is scheduled to resume later this week.
St. Petersburg General has had its share of recent challenges.
Last week, the hospital was called out by Consumer Reports magazine for having one of the worst infection rates in the country. In another report last year, it was included among the most dangerous hospitals in the nation for senior citizens.
Monday night's picket outside the hospital's entrance drew about 50 nurses, many of whom were finishing up the evening shift and were still dressed in scrubs. The hospital at 6500 38th Ave. N employs about 200 RNs, according to the union.
Some of the nurses carried red balloons and rang cow bells. Others waved signs.
"We are the nurses, the mighty, mighty nurses," they sang. "Caring for our patients. Working for our families."
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One of them, Laura Croasdale-Martin, said the job had changed since she started in 1974. Patient care used to account for 80 percent of her day, she said. Now, she spends most of her time doing paperwork.
"I'm here to protect my daughter who became a nurse, as well as my patients," she said.
The picket line included a handful of University of South Florida nursing students, and registered nurses from as far away as Brooksville and Bradenton.
"We nurses have to stand together because all we've got is each other," said Rosanne O'Malley, who came after her shift at the Medical Center of Trinity, also owned by HCA. "You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us."
Story blasted the "dismal wage conditions" for nursing professionals throughout Florida. She said the average wage for a registered nurse at St. Petersburg General is $30.60 an hour — $2.49 less than the national average.
"There's definitely room for improvement," she said.
Higher wages would benefit more than just the nurses, she added. They would help the hospital recruit and retain more qualified employees, increasing the overall level of care at the hospital.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at email@example.com or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.