Striking nurses at Saint Vincent’s Hospital braced for a second week of protest, as politicians visited the picket line Friday and other unions at the Worcester hospital spoke of simmering tensions inside.
In a sign that an end to the dispute is not likely soon, the hospital signed a contract for a week of replacement workers at a cost of “several million” dollars, said CEO Carolyn Jackson.
The walkout against one of the state’s few for-profit hospitals, which started Monday, is already the longest nurses strike in two decades in Massachusetts, spurred by an issue of perennial concern and dispute: staffing levels.
Jackson said the hospital has maintained a full surgery schedule despite the strike and has not transferred any patients. Emergency department volume is “a little lighter than last week,” but that could be attributed to the decline in COVID-19 patients and nicer weather, she said.
“This week has been very difficult from an emotional standpoint,” Jackson said. “From a quality-of-care standpoint, things have gone very well.”
But David Schildmeier, spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents the 800 striking nurses, said replacements flown in from far-flung states can’t fill the shoes of nurses who have worked for decades at the hospital and “know what the physician wants before the physician knows it.” He said some of the replacement nurses don’t know how to use the equipment or won’t follow pre-surgical safety procedures.
The state Department of Public Health has sent inspectors to monitor safety at the hospital throughout the strike. “They’ve had no concerns,” Jackson said. A department spokeswoman said the state had not received any complaints from Saint Vincent Hospital patients.
In a show of support for the union, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Representative James P. McGovern visited the picket line outside the Worcester hospital Friday afternoon. Former representative Joseph P. Kennedy III stopped by in the morning.
Meanwhile, other unions at the hospital, which is owned by Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare, entered the fray.
Teamsters Local 170, which represents 250 technicians, alleged that its members were being asked to do work outside their normal duties to aid replacement nurses. Jackson, the hospital CEO, said that Teamsters were merely being asked to show the replacement nurses where certain supplies were located.
Teamsters Secretary-Treasurer Shannon R. George said that one member had been fired for correcting an error by a replacement nurse, who took offense. Hospital spokeswoman Rhiana Sherwood said that “this individual is no longer employed by us,” but the hospital could not comment on personnel issues. She said George’s account of the incident is “not true.”
The Teamsters are not in contract negotiations, but have joined the picket line after work to support the striking nurses, George said.
Another union at Saint Vincent’s is having contract troubles of its own. The hospital’s pact with the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1445, expired Feb. 28. As with the nurses, the union — which represents 600 patient care assistants, technicians, clerks, aides, and others — complained of inadequate staffing. UFCW members are still at work and have not taken a strike vote, but they plan informational pickets Saturday alongside the picketing nurses.
The nurses union says that nurses routinely have to care for five patients at a time with inadequate backup. The union is seeking a limit of four patients per nurse, additional support staff, an increase in the number of nurses and patient observers in the emergency department, and a cadre of critical care nurses to look after patients waiting for admission to the intensive care unit.
The hospital said each nurse on a medical-surgical unit has four or five patients, in accordance with contractual staffing guidelines. A hospital review of monthly staffing levels over the last two years found that from January 2019 to February 2020, the hospital staffed medical-surgical units at an average of 1 nurse to 4.4 patients. During the pandemic, the patient-to-nurse ratio rose to 1 nurse to 4.7 patients. The hospital’s contract proposal would bring that ratio back down to 1 to 4.4, Jackson said.
Union members have applied for state unemployment benefits, but have not heard whether they are eligible, Schildmeier said.