Striking nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital planned to continue picketing Tuesday morning, as two sides in the labor dispute traded accusations and dug in their heels.
The 800 nurses walked off the job Monday morning after failing to reach agreement over staffing levels at the Worcester hospital. They plan to picket from 6 a.m. to midnight each day “till we accomplish what we set out to do,” said Marie Ritacco, vice president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association and a recovery room nurse at Saint Vincent’s.
”We are absolutely still on fire out here,” Ritacco said, adding that community members were honking their horns in support and donating to the union’s strike fund.
Hospital CEO Carolyn Jackson said things were going well inside the hospital. Replacement nurses, hired at a cost of $5.4 million for the first five days, underwent orientation last week and went to work Monday, she said. “I got a great e-mail from a surgeon telling me how his nurse did everything he needed,” Jackson said. She described the patient census as “fairly consistent” with previous days.
“A number” of union nurses crossed the picket line to work Monday, according to Jackson.
But Ritacco said the numbers who crossed were “much fewer than we anticipated. We have very small pockets of people doing that.” Neither Ritacco nor Jackson had a count of how many union nurses reported to work.
Negotiations broke down Wednesday between Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare, the for-profit company that owns the hospital, and the Massachusetts Nurses Association, the union for the nurses.
The union asserts that patient care has been suffering because each nurse routinely treats five patients at a time, and cutbacks in support staff have added to nurses’ burdens. But the hospital says staffing levels are among the best in the state. Jackson acknowledged vacancies among the support staff but said the hospital is working to fill them and that patient care had not suffered.
“The thing that brought us to the streets is the fact that we know without a doubt that when you have more than four patients in your assignment, the likelihood you will have a patient having a bad outcome increases seven percent,” Ritacco said. “You run the risk of missing subtle cues when a patient’s condition is changing.” She said call lights are going unanswered, patients are waiting for pain medication, and patients are not being cleaned and turned often enough. Falls and bed sores are increasing, she alleged.
“Patients are being harmed every day,” Ritacco said.
Jackson denied any increase in falls or bed sores. “Patient care has not been adversely affected. When you look at infections as well as mortality, we improved from 2019 to 2020,” she said. “Quality has not degraded. In fact, it’s largely gotten better.”
The hospital walked away from an “unreasonable” union proposal that, Jackson said, seeks to set staffing levels similar to those that would have been required in a failed 2018 ballot initiative. “We have one of the most generous staffing ratios in the state,” she said.
But union spokesman David Schildmeier said that nurses a mile away at UMass Memorial Medical Center enjoy lower patient assignments.
The walkout is the first major strike since 2017, when nurses at Tufts Medical Center declared a one-day strike, and the hospital locked them out for the next four days, and then settled. A strike in 2005 at UMass Memorial lasted only five hours.
But the Saint Vincent’s strike has no set time limit and it’s unclear how long it can last. The last open-ended strike occurred in 2001 at Brockton Hospital and lasted 104 days.
Nurses at Saint Vincent’s also struck in 2001 as a fledgling union seeking its first contract. The union was one of the first in the nation to win language banning mandatory overtime, according to Schildmeier.
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