More than 200 days after it began, the nurses strike in Worcester needs to end. This was the message Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker delivered publicly on Friday.
“The Commonwealth needs every available healthcare resource fully operational while we are responding to this pandemic,” Baker wrote in a tweet from the Massachusetts governor’s account. “It’s time for both parties to get back to the table and reach consensus at St. Vincent’s Hospital.”
The work stoppage, which reached 200 days on Thursday, is the longest nurses’ strike in the history of Massachusetts.
Nurses with the Massachusetts Nursing Association voted in February to authorize the strike. The association said the nurses spent the past two years trying to convince the hospital’s parent company, Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare, to improve patient care conditions; in the last year, nurses filed more than 600 “unsafe staffing” reports and more than 100 have been filed since Jan. 1. Staffing levels have led to Worcester patients experiencing more falls, bed sores and potentially dangerous delays in medications and treatment, the nurses contend.
The same day the nurses authorized the strike, Tenet announced annual profits of more than $400 million.
Saint Vincent officials say they’d made increasing offers to the nurses’ union for 18 months leading up to the strike, arguing they presented the “best proposal” on wages, benefits, security and staffing in a decade.
“We believe this strike is irresponsible in the middle of an ongoing pandemic,” the hospital said in March. “While we respect the nurses’ right to strike, patients and their loved ones can be assured that our patients will continue to be cared for by qualified replacement registered nurses during this strike action and our hospital will be operational during this time.”
When the strike began in March, COVID numbers were continuing to decline both in Worcester and statewide. Worcester’s UMass Memorial Health was caring for seven COVID patients at the time. Now, the number is well above 100 and hospital officials expressed that they’ve reached “crisis” levels.
Dr. Eric Dickson, the president of UMass Memorial Health, said at a news conference outside city hall in Worcester earlier this month that about 80 to 100 hospital beds are offline in Worcester because of the strike. It’s the same number of individuals waiting in emergency departments in the city for a bed.
“We would really call upon the leadership of Saint Vincent and the MNA to get together, get in a room and figure this thing out,” Dickson said. “When the strike started we were in better shape than we are now. The projection was better. We’re at a crisis situation now.”
The Massachusetts Nurses Association said they were “inches” from a tentative agreement last month after the union and Tenet Healthcare met in secret through a federal mediator.
The deal fell through over a return-to-work clause. It’s customary for striking employees to return to their previous positions once a deal is struck. Due to the length of the strike, the hospital has hired more than 200 permanent replacement nurses.
When the strike began, about 800 nurses joined the work stoppage. The two sides disagree on the current number still on strike. Saint Vincent Hospital said at most 625 remain out of work while the union told MassLive that nearly 700 nurses remain on strike.
“The only obstacle to the St. Vincent Nurses being back in the hospital, and the person responsible for this crisis is Tenet Healthcare’s CEO Carolyn Jackson,” Marie Ritacco, a striking St. Vincent nurse and vice president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said in a statement issued Friday. “We join the Governor in his concern for our patients and our community and we urge him to do whatever he can to convince the source of this stalemate, Ms Jackson, to finally negotiate an equitable end to the dispute that respects the nurses and ensures the safety of our patients.”
The union claims the hospital has hired less experienced replacement nurses. “Nurses with 10 – 40 years of expertise in highly specialized units, such as the ICU, maternity unit and emergency department are being replaced by newly graduated nurses or novice nurses who under normal circumstances would never be allowed into those positions,” Ritacco said.
Hospital officials said the replacement nurses consist of 32% with less than 5 years, 33% with six to 20 years of experience and 35% with at least 21 years of experience.
While the union faulted the hospital in their statement, St. Vincent officials said “the MNA refuses to take responsibility for their role in prolonging this strike.”
The statement goes on, “Our attorney spoke with their attorney on August 20 and September 7, and sent a letter on August 26 detailing several creative solutions we have offered to resolve the return-to-work concerns. These solutions included ‘super seniority rights’ for permanently replaced strikers, alternative roles for each of the permanently replaced strikers, and even enhanced severance for those permanently replaced strikers who did not wish to return to work.”
The hospital added, “Our attorney explained that he was willing to present us with any creative solutions the MNA had, as long as it did not involve involuntarily displacing the permanent replacement nurses. It is critical that our return to work proposal includes roles for all nurses given the nursing shortage across Massachusetts and the country.”
Union officials deny these communications took place and the hospital says they haven’t heard communication from the union in weeks.