By CBS3 Staff

LANGHORNE, Pa. (CBS) — Nearly 800 nurses at St. Mary Medical Center In Langhorne walked off the job Tuesday morning. The strike comes as COVID-19 cases are soaring in the region.

The nurses say they’re fighting for their patients.

“Today, we are standing up for our patients, for our community and ourselves,” nurse Donna Halpern said.

Nurses are calling for a fair contract, better wages and for their patients’ safety.

“We were team players,” nurse Robert Bozek said. “We came up and we met with them and we made sure we would be as safe as we could be at this hospital.”

The nurses and their union say they’re facing a serious staffing shortage even as they deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. They say some nurses are caring for seven patients when they should only be caring for three or four.

“What that means is the call bells are not being answered,” Halpern said. “There’s a human being behind that call bell with a need and I’ve heard call bells ringing for a half-hour.”

They blame St. Mary’s owner, Trinity Health Systems, for the shortages.

“Trinity seems not to want to negotiate a fair contract that is safe moving forward, with benefits that we can recruit and retain staff,” Bozek said.

Union officials point out more than 240 nurses have left St. Mary’s over the last two years and have gone to area hospitals where they get paid more.

“So what happens is, we orient them and then they leave to go to local hospitals and make $6 and $7 more an hour,” nurse Robert Gentile said. “So it’s really sad. We’re the most underpaid nurses in Bucks County.”

Hospital officials say the nurses rejected increased wage offers, including as recently as Nov. 13.

As COVID cases climb, hospital officials say outside nurses have been hired to fill in during the strike.

In a statement, the hospital said, “We respect the union members’ right to strike, and we remain committed to negotiating in good faith to reach agreement on a fair, consistent and sustainable initial contract for St. Mary nurses. We look forward to the day productive negotiations can resume.”

But the union says many of its nurses are overwhelmed. Some held signs that read “Safe Staffing Saves Lives.”

“We’re not greedy,” Halpern said. “We’re trying to secure better wages so we can retain the talent, the nurses that we so desperately need to care for our patients.”

The nurses say, if necessary, they’ll be out here again tomorrow.

CBS3’s Howard Monroe and Matt Petrillo contributed to this report.

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