PROVIDENCE — An overwhelming number of unionized workers have voted “no confidence” in Women & Infants Hospital’s management, representing about 95 percent of those employees who voted, union leaders said Tuesday.
More than three years after the first COVID-19 case was identified in Rhode Island, caregivers at Care New England continue to face challenging staffing shortages that have plagued the health care industry throughout the pandemic. The claims of a “dire” labor crisis are coupled with workers at Women & Infants alleging that there has been a “historic number” of unresolved grievances and arbitrations, and an “ongoing lack of clear and respectful” communication. A spokesperson for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) District 1199, which represents these workers, did not say how many grievances remained unresolved.
Hospital workers are represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) District 1199.
During a press conference Tuesday, nurse and lactation consultant Nancy Chandley Adams described allegations of disrespect, harassment, racialized language, and systematic mistreatment. Most of the caregivers at the hospital, which delivers approximately 80 percent of the state’s babies each year, are women and come from diverse backgrounds, but Chandley Adams said she has heard supervisors refer to the housekeeping staff as “the Portuguese mafia.”
“These individuals have put themselves at risk throughout the pandemic. This language reduces them to just a label, and is completely disrespectful of their important contribution to patient care,” said Chandley Adams. In another case, she alleged that a different manager told a breastfeeding student to “go pump” and that “we don’t want you spraying all over us.”
“No woman should be subjected to this type of demeaning language, particularly at a hospital that treats women and babies,” said Chandley Adams.
Both the union and Care New England, the health care system that owns the hospital, recently completed a transition in their top offices.
Jesse Martin took over as SEIU’s president when longtime leader Patrick Quinn decided to step down in the summer of 2022, after 12 years as the union’s executive vice president. In early December, ex-Tufts Medical executive Dr. Michael Wagner took over as Care New England’s president and CEO when Dr. James E. Fanale officially retired, after more than five years in the system’s top office.
A SEIU spokeswoman said union members and elected delegates have not met with or heard from Wagner, but that the challenges have been ongoing since before his arrival. Hospital administration has also cancelled three of the last four months of labor management meetings, union members say.
On Tuesday morning, Care New England spokeswoman Jessica McCarthy told the Globe that the board and executive team all have “full confidence” in the hospital’s management team. Women & Infants is led by Shannon Sullivan, who began at the hospital more than 20 years ago as a social worker.
During a meeting on March 14, Women & Infants’ medical executive committee — which is made up of elected positions representing all medical staff — voted unanimously in support of the hospital’s leadership, according to Committee President Dr. Kenneth Chen.
“We are confident that this world-renowned hospital... is living up to its values and mission,” Chen told the Globe in a statement. “Not only does that mission mean care for patients, it also means care for staffs.”
McCarthy challenged the union’s claims of disrespect, and said the hospital has created a “welcoming, safe, collaborative, and respectful environment for all team members” under Sullivan.
“We do not tolerate acts of aggression, threats or abuse in any form,” said McCarthy. “We all have a common mission of providing superior patient care in a supportive, compassionate environment.”
The staffing crisis, which McCarthy said has created “challenging times” for the hospital, is one of the reasons many hospitals in the state received millions in American Rescue Plan Act funds from the state. Women & Infants received $4.6 million, 80 percent of which was supposed to be directed to direct care work. Martin told the Globe previously that they’ve requesting meetings with Care New England’s leadership team for months to have worker representation as a part of those discussions.
“We are sick and tired of working short, day in and day out, and having our concerns brushed to the side,” said Regina Brown, a certified nursing assistant in the hospital’s antenatal unit. She said she often cares for up to 29 patients at a time.
As of Tuesday morning, Women & Infants had 83 open full-time positions at a hospital with 2,100 full-time employees. Fewer than five positions are being temporarily filled by caregivers from staffing agencies, which are typically paid at a higher rate than permanent workers.
“You don’t push your workforce to the breaking point and then keep adding in additional stressors,” said Brown, citing disrespect from certain managers. “They are doing nothing to alleviate the problem.”
McCarthy said employees should seek immediate assistance anytime they feel unsafe or uncomfortable by contacting security and/or their manager. They can also report concerns to the hospital’s 24/7 hotline or online portal.
“All reports are investigated within 10 days by a multi-disciplinary team and appropriate actions taken,” said McCarthy, who declined to provide details on any actions taken in response to the union’s specific allegations, due to personnel and privacy laws.
But the union insists there have been “unresolved union grievances that needlessly have to go through the arbitration process instead,” according to spokeswoman Amelia Abromaitis.