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Union says nurses are in limbo

Jobs in question as Boston Medical consolidates sites

Leaders of a union representing more than 450 registered nurses at Boston Medical Center say they are being left in limbo as the hospital moves forward with a plan to close its East Newton Street campus and consolidate services at the main campus in the city’s South End.

Hospital officials insist they expect to employ almost all the nurses, but say the union has refused to negotiate about the details of the proposed consolidation.

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The plan is being reviewed this month by two boards and a finance committee at Boston Medical Center as well as the Boston Redevelopment Authority, all of which must approve before it moves forward. The shutdown would take about four years to complete.

But representatives of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, whose members work at the East Newton campus — site of the former University Hospital — complain hospital officials have refused to guarantee their jobs once the campus is shuttered and sold to developers.

They also contend a contract struck by Boston Medical in the spring gives priority to Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 884 nurses at Boston Medical’s main campus. That campus would expand under the consolidation plan.

“I cannot believe, and I cannot accept that the University nurses won’t be given an opportunity to transfer with their work to the other [Boston Medical] campus,” said Julie Pinkham, executive director of the Canton-based nurses association.

Boston Medical officials say none of their employees, including managers, have job guarantees. They say they have told nurses on the East Newton campus, however, that the hospital does not plan to reduce service levels and anticipates employing only slightly fewer nurses than it does today after the consolidation as long as the number of patients remains steady.

But most nurses moving to the main campus would have to leave the nurses association and join the SEIU, which represents the vast majority of nurses in the medical buildings there under a bargaining structure dating to when there were two hospitals. Boston Medical was formed through the 1996 merger of Boston City Hospital and University Hospital.

“We value all our nurses and are committed to make sure they continue to care for their patients as necessary changes in BMC’s physical layout unfold,” said Jenni Watson, chief of staff to hospital president Kate Walsh. Under its proposal, the hospital would shed 85 of its 496 beds and about 20 of 1,338 nursing jobs, mostly by not filling openings when nurses leave.

Boston Medical, a teaching affiliate of the Boston University School of Medicine, is the state’s largest “safety net” hospital, serving mostly low-income and immigrant patients. Like other hospitals, it is bracing for state and federal budget cuts and increased pressure to shift more care to outpatient settings. The nurses association contract with Boston Medical was scheduled to expire Feb. 1, but the parties agreed to extend the pact while they discussed a new one. While they met recently with management, nurses association leaders maintain Boston Medical’s consolidation plans have focused more on facilities and medical services than on the employees who care for patients.

“Half our members have worked over 25 years here,” said Deb Silva, vice chairwoman of the nurses association bargaining unit at the hospital. “They are some of the most experienced nurses in the city. These are people who have dedicated their lives to Boston Medical Center.”

Boston Medical officials contend they have been open about their plans from the start. They say the nurses association rejected a request to conduct “coordinated bargaining” among all the hospital’s unions. The nurses union also refused to talk about a transition plan and rejected a buyout proposal that was accepted by the SEIU in April, according to the hospital officials. Forty-eight SEIU members took buyouts and left the hospital.

Under the contract negotiated between Boston Medical and the SEIU in the spring, that union’s members got first rights to apply for job openings created by the buyouts. But some other positions that came open as the result of those moves were filled by new nursing graduates rather than nurses association members — a point of friction for the association.

SEIU Local 1199 spokesman Jeff Hall said his union identified job security as a top priority in contract talks. “Members will be monitoring the proposed campus consolidation at Boston Medical Center very closely to ensure the vital mission of our safety net hospital and the needs of both patients and workers are prioritized throughout the process,” he said. Local 1199 also represents service workers whose jobs could be affected by the consolidation.

About 15 nurses from the East Newton campus have applied for and accepted jobs on the former City Hospital campus, many at a medical intensive care unit that was moved to the main campus earlier this year. In the process, the nurses were required to switch their union affiliation from the nurses association to the SEIU. Association members say the moves have created staffing shortages and potential safety issues at East Newton. Hospital officials dispute that the transfers have been disruptive. “We’re not seeing any impact on patient care,” Watson said.

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.
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