By Kathy Matheson for Associated Press –

PHILADELPHIA — Hundreds of striking Temple University Hospital nurses and other employees rallied Tuesday in an effort to restart contract negotiations stalled over language that workers say would jeopardize patients, limit free speech and take away a crucial college tuition benefit.

About 1,000 nurses and 500 professional health workers have been picketing the hospital for nearly a week. No new talks are scheduled, and Temple has hired about 850 temporary workers to keep the building running.

Hospital officials say eliminating free tuition for employees’ children will allow about $5.5 million to be redirected toward patient care. The final contract offer, which included raises for both groups, is “fair, reasonable and competitive,” CEO Sandy Gomberg said in an interview Monday.

But Maureen May, head of the hospital’s nurses union, said the tuition perk is a key recruiting and retention tool for the urban hospital in gritty North Philadelphia.

And a proposed “gag clause,” which would restrict union members from publicly criticizing the hospital or its managers, could prevent nurses from advocating for patients or even grumbling about a bad day on their Facebook pages, she said.

“To me, that’s frightening,” May said on Monday.

Gomberg said the “non-disparagement” language is directed specifically at the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, which represents the nurses and professionals. The association has a history of “disparaging the hospital and its business practices” in union publications and to the media, Gomberg said.

Nurses will still be expected to voice concerns within the hospital, where Gomberg said there are various ways to address concerns about patient care.

Yet such a clause is “simply dressing up a gag order in fancy clothes,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

“This seems like it really shuts down all employees’ ability to speak about problems with the administration or the delivery of health care,” Walczak said. “That should be of concern to everyone.”

The college tuition benefit — free tuition at Temple or a $7,000 credit to another university — has already been eliminated for children of the hospital’s other 3,500 employees, Gomberg said. But workers themselves still receive the perk.

The dependent benefit is not competitive regionally because the area’s many non-university-affiliated hospitals don’t offer it, Gomberg said. Throughout Temple’s health system, about 400 workers out of 6,450 were using it, officials said.

Temple unilaterally eliminated the perk in March 2009, before the contract ended. The union protested, and the state Labor Relations Board ruled in January that the hospital could not retract it without bargaining.

The ruling came too late for veteran nurse Alicia Garcia, who said she found herself “scrambling” to come up with the money for her daughter’s sophomore year at Temple last fall.

Her daughter could have pursued scholarships in New Jersey but chose Temple because of the benefit, said Garcia. Now she has a loan.

“The way it was done, we have to come up with this money right away,” Garcia said Monday. “Temple just yanked it out.”

Regarding wages, the nurses are seeking a 14.5 percent increase over four years; the hospital has offered 4 percent over three years. The health professionals are seeking 14.5 percent over four years; the hospital has offered 6.5 percent in the same period.

Find out more at TempleWatch.org.