The 650 nurses at three Beth Israel Lahey Health locations have voted to authorize a potential strike, bringing the facilities closer to a three-day walkout over contract negotiations.
The nurses are part of Northeast Hospital Corporation — which includes Beverly Hospital, Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester, and Lahey Outpatient Center in Danvers. Nurses of Northeast, which is owned by Beth Israel Lahey Health, have been negotiating a new contract since October, in preparation for the current contract to expire next week.
Union nurses with the Massachusetts Nurses Association have demanded higher staffing levels, increased salaries, and better benefits as part of talks, and said they authorized a strike vote to protest. The vote allows the bargaining committee to call a three-day strike with 10 days’ notice but doesn’t mean a strike will occur.
“We have been urging our administration for a year to work with us to address a longstanding staffing crisis, as they fail to recognize the urgency to retain and recruit valuable, experienced nurses in our community hospitals,” said Larn Beard, a nurse at Beverly Hospital and cochair of the nurses local bargaining unit.
“We have lost hundreds of nurses in the two-plus years, nearly 40 percent of our nursing workforce, and that exodus has accelerated as more than 100 nurses have left in the last six months alone,” Beard added. “We were forced to hold this strike vote in order to move our administration to finally come to a reasonable agreement that supports our call for competitive wages and benefits.”
According to the MNA, the nurses held a secret ballot over two weeks in March and held in-person voting Wednesday. The union said nurses voted “overwhelmingly” to approve a strike authorization but didn’t release figures.
In a statement, hospital officials said they had offered wage increases between 19 percent and 32 percent over the three-year life of the contract, offered higher staffing, and decreased medical insurance premiums.
While officials said they were “disappointed” in the strike authorization vote, they said the sides were close to a resolution.
“Our goal has been to reach a fair agreement that allows us to retain and recruit nurses that share our commitment to providing outstanding care to our community,” said Kim Perryman, chief nursing officer at Beverly and Addison Gilbert Hospitals, in a statement. “The issues that remain to be resolved are limited, and we are fully committed to continuing to work toward a resolution.”
Hospitals around the country are dealing with a staffing crisis, exacerbated by COVID burnout and an influx of patients seeking long-delayed care.
MNA nurses said the staffing issues at the three Beth Israel Lahey Health sites have worsened during the pandemic, as nurses have been forced to work mandatory overtime despite a state law that banned the use in acute-care hospitals. Union nurses at Northeast said they are also paid 11 to 16 percent less than nurses at hospitals within a 30-mile radius.
The nurses said the hospital has agreed to some wage increases and to eliminate the use of mandatory overtime, but issues remain on staffing levels and health benefits.
The strike authorization comes nearly three months after Saint Vincent nurses in Worcester resolved a record-setting 285-day strike in December.
David Schildmeier, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said the union’s actions reflect the problems that surfaced in the last two years, made worse by the fact that new nurses and replacement staff are compensated at rates above existing workers.
“What the pandemic did was expose all the failures of the system prior to the pandemic,” Schildmeier said. “The lack of [support at the] federal, state, and local level ... the exploitation of nurses. These nurses saw more people die on their watch in two years than they will in their whole career. … Nurses are willing to speak out.”
Jessica Bartlett can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ByJessBartlett.