HUNTINGTON — Registered nurses at Cabell Huntington Hospital, citing short staffing and forced overtime, are now seeking union representation to open negotiations with hospital leadership.

Around 100 nurses — many still in their green, blue and brown scrubs and hospital badges — joined representatives from the Service Employees International Union 1199 on Wednesday afternoon to symbolically hand-deliver a petition to the administration for union coverage to be extended to Cabell Huntington’s 900 registered nurses.

SEIU 1199 has, since 1975, negotiated with Cabell Huntington Hospital, representing mostly service employees like sanitarians, housekeeping, maintenance, pharmacy techs and patient care assistants — roughly 870 employees at the hospital. Adding registered nurses to the fold would give union representation to a clear majority of Cabell Huntington’s approximately 2,900 employees.

SEIU 1199, a Columbus, Ohio-based wing of one of North America’s largest labor unions, represents thousands of health care employees in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. Cabell Huntington and SEIU 1199 are in the middle of a five-year contract signed in 2016, but the union and the hospital, along with St. Mary’s Medical Center, have been at odds over a handful of issues over the past two years.

Because registered nurses are currently not unionized at Cabell Huntington, they cannot collectively bargain with administration about their concerns.

“We want to have a say in our health care, in our community and in the patients that these nurses take care of,” said Joyce Gibson, district director for SEIU 1199 Region 1, which covers West Virginia, Kentucky and Southern Ohio.

As they trickled onto the sidewalk, with more inside waving from the windows, the nurses spoke candidly about their concerns.

Mary Beth Scott, a registered nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit and 13-year employee at Cabell Huntington, said that while she clocks in at 7:15 a.m. every work day, she sometimes doesn’t leave until 9 p.m. that day — often left wondering if the outcomes of that day would have been better with more hands on deck.

“The expectation of what nurses are expected to do has gotten longer — the list has gotten longer — but they don’t want to give you any more hands to help,” Scott said. “It’s not fair to our patients, and it’s not fair to the families.”

Shannon Caskey, a registered nurse in surgery, said that situation has progressively worsened in the three years she’s worked at Cabell Huntington. Breaks and lunches often don’t happen, overtime is common if not the rule, and a Monday-through-Friday week typically means 50 to 60 hours of work.

She had never considered unionizing, by her own admission, but said she now sees it as a necessity.

“I’ve seen better morale (among nurses) in the past three weeks with (the unionizing effort) than I have the whole time I’ve been here,” Caskey said.

The gathering Wednesday marched from the sidewalk to the entrance of the adjoining Edwards Comprehensive Cancer Center before being politely met at the door by hospital security, who allowed Gibson and a delegation of five nurses to deliver the request for union coverage to the administration.

After about 10 minutes, Gibson and the others returned, stating that their request was personally received, and denied, by Tim Martin, Cabell Huntington Hospital vice president of operations.

With no hint of discouragement, Gibson said the union will file a request with the National Labor Relations Board to set an election among Cabell Huntington’s registered nurses, who may then themselves vote to unionize regardless of the administration’s decision Wednesday. That election date has not been set, but Gibson said it is likely to come in the next four to six weeks.

Though its employees were not represented Wednesday, Gibson added that nurses at St. Mary’s Medical Center will soon vote whether to form their own new chapter of the SEIU. The hospital has never had union representation among its employees.

Both St. Mary’s and Cabell Huntington are owned by Mountain Health Network, which was formed at the latter’s acquisition of the former last year.

In a written statement following the nurses’ gathering, Cabell Huntington administration maintained that the hospital continues to provide quality care in all departments, citing national recognition and awards in patient care and workplace environment.

“Cabell Huntington Hospital is disappointed by the SEIU’s false claims about the quality of our health care services because the SEIU has represented employees in multiple departments for more than 40 years,” wrote Molly K. Frick, Cabell Huntington director of human resources. “Nevertheless, we will continue to work professionally and in good faith with SEIU in all matters affecting those existing union employees in the future.”

The statement did not address the staffing or overtime concerns raised by nurses or the SEIU.

Follow reporter Bishop Nash on Twitter @BishopNash.

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