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‘We will not be broken’: Nurses’ strike in Worcester reaches 100 days

Nurse Marlena Pellegrino is one of the nurses who have been on the picket line for 100 days at Saint Vincent Hospital.
Nurse Marlena Pellegrino is one of the nurses who have been on the picket line for 100 days at Saint Vincent Hospital.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

WORCESTER — Five mornings a week, Denise Scotia can be found in front of Saint Vincent Hospital flying the bright blue Massachusetts Nurses Union flag with a sign draped around her neck proudly stating, “I’ve been a nurse for 26 years.”

On Tuesday, the 100th day of an unrelenting nurses’ strike at the hospital, the scene was no different.

Scotia is one of about 750 nurses who began striking on March 8 after failed attempts to negotiate an increase in nursing staff. After 32 negotiation sessions, the Massachusetts Nurses Association and Tenet Healthcare, a Dallas-based for-profit that owns and operates the Worcester hospital, remain at a standstill.

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The strike is one of the longest in Massachusetts in decades.

“When you experience just that fear of losing your job, fear of not paying your bills, and losing your home and things like that because we didn’t have unemployment for over eight weeks. It has brought us so close together,” Scotia said. “On day 100, I feel that we’re united, more so than we were on day one.”

Nurses on strike at Saint Vincent Hospital.
Nurses on strike at Saint Vincent Hospital. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Most of the nurses have just started receiving unemployment benefits because of delays in filing of paperwork, which Carolyn Moore said has been an added stress for some nurses.

“It’s scary not having an income,” Moore said. “It is scary losing your health insurance.”

Under the current conditions, nurses said they are assigned to five or six patients, which they said is an outdated staffing model that no longer addresses patients’ needs. Several nurses, including Marsha Holm, attributed this change to the level of care patients require now.

“Patients are sicker now. It’s not like in the old days when patients would come in for a minor operation and stay a week. They’re going home the same day,” Holm said. “So the patients that are here are very sick patients.”

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Carolyn Jackson, chief executive of Saint Vincent Hospital, said the hospital sent two proposals to the union in early May. The union then submitted a counterproposal on May 5. The hospital did not respond to the proposal and declined to negotiate the nurses association’s counteroffer.

Jackson said the hospital would look at a revised counterproposal.

“We would very much like for the MNA to come back to us with a reasonable counterproposal that takes off some of the things that they have, that, since the beginning, we said are completely unreasonable,” Jackson said.

Mike Beer has been walking the picket line with his wife, nurse Debbi Beer.
Mike Beer has been walking the picket line with his wife, nurse Debbi Beer.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

A week later Saint Vincent announced a plan to hire permanent replacement nurses, said David Schildmeier, director of communications for the nurses association.

Jackson said the hospital is hiring and training more than 100 permanent replacement nurses.

“Their plan was to permanently replace the nurses, which is a dramatic step in any kind of strike, particularly nurses. Now there’s no way they can replace these nurses. It was a cynical announcement designed to scare the nurses into coming back to the table or coming back to work,” Schildmeier said.

The energy among the 65 nurses striking on Tuesday was high as they carried signs that read “safe patient care” and “100 days strong” around the block. Scotia said although the strike has come with stress and uncertainty, gathering on the picket line every day has only strengthened the group.

Many nurses said they plan to continue to strike, rain or shine.

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“We will not be broken. We are striking for the patients’ safety, that is the most important thing,” Holm said.

Schildmeier echoed plans to continue the strike, and said the nurses do not plan to return to work until a contract is negotiated.

“Especially at week 14, those nurses are in no hurry to go back, unless they have the protections they need for the safety of their patients,” he said.

This is the second nurses’ strike in Saint Vincent Hospital’s history. In 2000, the nurses went on strike to limit the use of mandatory overtime. That strike lasted for 49 days before it was settled.

Lil Lapensee has been a nurse for 42 years.
Lil Lapensee has been a nurse for 42 years.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Marlena Pellegrino, cochair of the bargaining union and nurse, hopes the hospital will resume negotiations.

“This is about patient safety, and they need to come back to the table and, you know, and talk with the nurses to take our concerns seriously,” Pellegrino said. “Professional registered nurses should not have to be out on the street for 100 days to get a corporation to address their concerns.”

Although there is no end to the strike in the immediate future, Debbi Beer echoed what many nurses said: they miss working with their patients.

“I miss being a nurse,” Beer said. “I miss my patients, and I am anxious to get back to work.”


Kate Lusignan can be reached at kate.lusignan@globe.com.