They will protest what they say are unfair working conditions for the approximately 100 RNs who work there.
At issue is mandatory overtime, methods of scheduling evening and overnight shifts, and the way nurses receive bonuses. In addition, some nurses with seniority are being denied career advancement while the VA fills positions with people from outside the VA, RNs contend.
“They have denied every grievance,” said Colleen Combs, president of the American Federation of Government Employees No. 3306, the union representing the nurses.
Management at the VA has “refused to sit down with us” since the union began filing grievances nearly a year ago, added Combs, a registered nurse at the VA for 29 years.
Combs said RNs are being required to work longer shifts in a 24-hour period than the 12-hour maximum set by federal law. The nurses also say they are scheduled to work overnight shifts and at other times that weren’t requested or initially stipulated.
“Management is manipulating contracts,” said Combs, who added that some nurses are being offered a bonus — 10 percent of their salary — for working in certain areas of the VA.
“There are more creative ways of recruiting and retaining nurses,” said Cheryl Vogel, an RN at the VA for 15 years. She said she is also frustrated because she has applied for numerous promotions but has been denied, only to discover the jobs were filled by people not already employed by the VA.
Allen Chopik, a union steward and RN at the VA for 28 years, contends the problems stem from management mishandling a shortage of nurses. He said the picket scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 25 is aimed at calling attention to “RNs dissatisfaction with working conditions.”
Chopik said the city has approved the picket from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on city property outside the VA gates.
When questioned Thursday about the nurses’ concerns, Patricia Lind — the VA’s associate director for patient-nursing services — said the VA is dealing with a nationwide nursing shortage and defended scheduling and other areas of contention. Lind did not address all the specific concerns, but said in general the VA makes its decisions based on “patient-care needs.”
There are times “we need a nurse to work longer than 12 hours,” said Lind, an RN for 30 years who worked in the private sector — including as nurse-manager at Rochester General Hospital — before coming to the VA eight years ago.
The law allows for a shift longer than 12 hours, she said, if patient care may be compromised — for example, if a patient’s condition has changed or a nurse is late to work or doesn’t show up for a shift.
“We try to keep RN overtime to a minimum,” she added.
The average number of overtime hours for RNs during each two-week pay period is one or two hours, she said. The VA is planning new ways of scheduling RN shifts to better accommodate employees needs, she added, “but sometimes changing shifts may require additional staff. We have to balance all these factors.”
“We have to be creative,” said Lind. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Lind said while the VA has felt the effects of the national nursing shortage, it is now doing well in spite of it. Due to Congress allocating more money for VA staffing, the local VA has been able to add at least 12 new RN positions in the last year, she said.
On Monday, the VA is getting four more RNs and another three are due to begin work within two weeks. Ideally, said Lind, the VA would be able to add one to three more RNs after that.
Lind said a nurse recruitment open house held at the VA last spring drew a crowd, and nurses already working at the VA are taking advantage of scholarships and programs that allow them to continue working while furthering their education to advance their career. Two employees recently moved up to RN in the program, while six RNs earned bachelor’s degrees and two RNs are in doctorate programs.
Salaries for RNs at the VA are based on federal guidelines and comparable to the private sector, she said, ranging from $42,400 to $76,000 depending on experience and education.
Canandaigua VA spokesman Dan Ryan said the VA has an average daily number of between 160 and 190 patients in residence. That number has stayed about the same for the past five years while the number of out-patients has grown.
The number of out-patients served at the VA alone was not available, but Ryan said the number of veterans served at the Canandaigua VA, along with its affiliate VA out-patient clinic in Rochester, is up this year by 5 percent.
From Oct. 1, 2007 through July 31 of this year, the two facilities served 17,744 veterans, up from 16,894 served during the same period the year before.