Eight hundred nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester held a rally late Sunday afternoon to kick off a strike set to begin Monday morning, according to the union representing them.
The action, the first open-ended nursing strike in the state in more than 15 years, comes after contract negotiations broke down Wednesday between Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare, the for-profit company that runs the hospital, and the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
The union is fighting for increased staffing levels at the hospital, saying in a statement that the strike is the latest effort to “convince Tenet to improve the patient care conditions at the facility, poor conditions that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.”
Staffing shortages in some departments are so dire that at least two longtime nurses said they have steered family members away from receiving care there.
“My mother was just hospitalized and I brought her to UMASS Memorial,” Marie Ritacco, a nurse who has been at the hospital since 1983, said bluntly in a phone interview. “I would not want my mother in Saint Vincent Hospital — absolutely not. And that is because there are not enough nurses in that building,” she said.
Saint Vincent CEO Carolyn Jackson released a statement Wednesday saying the hospital is ”very disappointed at the MNA’s unwillingness to reach agreement. The proposal they presented us today signaled that they are not willing to take this negotiation seriously.”
In a statement Sunday, the hospital criticized the strike, saying it is “irresponsible in the middle of an ongoing pandemic” and defended staffing levels as “already comparable to or better than those at peer hospitals.”
The hospital did not directly respond to e-mailed questions Sunday about conditions alleged by the union.
Saint Vincent, one of only a dozen for-profit hospitals in Massachusetts, said Wednesday it had hired replacement nurses to begin work on Monday at a cost of $5.4 million.
The nurses association said staffing numbers have been cherry-picked and their concerns been ignored since long before the pandemic.
Tenet’s negotiators “walked away from the table having once again refused to address the nurses’ longstanding call for desperately needed staffing improvements to ensure safer patient care,” they said in a statement.
The association said patients at the hospital “are experiencing an increase in patient falls, an increase in patients suffering from preventable bed sores, potentially dangerous delays in patients receiving needed medications and other treatments — all due to lack of appropriate staffing, excessive patient assignments, and cuts to valuable support staff.”
Saint Vincent released a timeline of negotiations stretching back to 2019, with more than 30 sessions, but Marlena Pellegrino co-chair of the nurses bargaining unit, said nurses have been backed into a corner and forced to take action.
“We are sad to see that Tenet holds so little value for our patients, yet we are resolved to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to protect our patients, as it is safer to strike now than allow Tenet to continue endangering our patients every day on every shift,” she said in a statement Friday.
On Sunday afternoon about 300 people gathered across the street from the hospital for a “Pre-Strike Community Rally” to drum up support for the action. Speakers addressed the crowd from a Teamsters Local 25 flatbed adorned with an inflatable fat cat, depicted smoking a cigar and holding a moneybag.
Nurses plan to picket the hospital every day from 6 a.m. until midnight, starting Monday, until a contract is reached, they said.
Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey and congressman James P. McGovern voiced support for the nurses in a joint statement Sunday afternoon criticizing Tenet for not making “appropriate and necessary movement on the issue of staffing” and urging the company to listen to the nurses.
“This is a patient safety issue, but it’s also about our values. We respect our nurses, we deeply appreciate everything they have done for our community during this challenging year, and we stand unequivocally with them in their fight for patient safety and fairness. We remain ready and willing to help in any way we can to resolve this situation in a fair and equitable way.”
The last major nursing strike in the state was at Tufts Medical Center in 2017, but open-ended strikes like the one at Saint Vincent are rare, according to the nurses association. The last took place in 2005 and lasted only hours.
Saint Vincent nurses also went on strike against Tenet in 2000, achieving their first union contract after 49 days, according to David Schildmeier, a spokesman for the nurses association.
“This is just a very bad player,” he said in a phone interview. “From what nurses have been reporting for the last two years, consistently this is among the worst staffed hospitals in the state,” he said.
The subject of staffing levels has been an increasing concern for the association, which sponsored a 2018 ballot question that would have set strict limits on the ratios of patients to nurses. Seventy percent of voters rejected the measure. Schildmeier said the decision to strike was voted for by 90 percent of the hospital’s nurses and is unrelated to the ballot question.
Dominique Muldoon, a surgical nurse who has been at the hospital since 1997, said staff shortages led to wrenching decisions, especially during the three months she was assigned to COVID-19 patients.
In a phone interview Sunday, she recalled how she would regularly be forced to choose between holding the hand of a dying COVID patient in the person’s final minutes and preventing an elderly patient down the hall from getting out of bed and falling.
“There were even times that a patient would need something and I ran in the room with nothing on — no facemask — because it had be instantaneous,” she said. “When you’re that overwhelmed sometimes, some of those things happen: You just don’t have time,” said Muldoon, who is a co-chair of the bargaining committee.
Ritacco, the nurse that steered her mother away from the hospital, said she has “seen this deterioration coming for years now.”
And what nurses say is a slide in the quality of care feels personal, she said.
“I want to be proud of where I work. I want to use this hospital [myself]” said Ritacco, who is vice president of the nurses association. “I’ve worked here since I was 19.”
Now, she is ready to go on strike.
“The majority of us feel a tremendous investment in this hospital and its success, and we’re going to be here for the long haul.”
Matthew J. Lee and Priyanka McCluskey of Globe staff contributed to this report.
Lucas Phillips can be reached at email@example.com.