Brigham and Women’s gears up for a contract battle as nurses union worries about pay, safety
Contentious labor negotiations are underway — again — between nurses and administrators at Brigham and Women's Hospital.
"We do expect a big fight," said lead union negotiator Shelley Reever of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents 3,200 nurses at the Brigham.
The nurses' 2½-year contract expired on Sept. 30. They're now squaring off over pay, benefits, and a topic that's not in the current contract: nurses' input on hospital security protocols. The last contract negotiations stretched 11 months.
Here's a peek at some issues they're fighting about:
Pay: Wages range widely in the union, from around $31 to more than $68 an hour. Nurses — except for those at the very top — already receive annual 5 percent raises. The union is instead asking for a 9 percent increase for all nurses this year.
The Brigham has balked at that. Other hospital staffers are slated for 2 percent raises, according to hospital spokeswoman Lori Schroth.
Canceled shifts: The Brigham wants more nurses on "variable hour" work schedules, which allows administrators to cancel a shift a week to save money if patient counts drop. The union isn't happy.
Benefits: The Brigham is asking part-time nurses to pay more for their health care. Union spokesman David Schildmeier said the Brigham reported $152 million in surplus revenue last year.
"Never, never do we accept a concession when you're making money," he said.
Schroth countered that the hospital's proposal doesn't constitute "concessions" because it would spend an extra $6.8 million on nurses' salaries.
Safety: Union leadership is calling for changes so there's no repeat of the January tragedy in which a patient's son went to the hospital and fatally shot Dr. Michael Davidson.
"We are afraid someone is going to get hurt or murdered again," said Patricia Powers, head of the union's Brigham bargaining unit.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration in May reviewed nine complaints from the union about unsafe working conditions, including a case in March, when the husband of a patient who had died returned to the hospital "agitated" and the staff couldn't find a working panic button to alert security. In response, the hospital has installed 12 new panic buttons, bringing its total to more than 300, Schroth said. OSHA concluded that the hospital had addressed its concerns.
The union has hired Daniel Linskey, a former superintendent-in-chief in Boston's police department, to develop a security proposal. The hospital has hired its own consultant to review its security policies and is "open to discussions about safety," Schroth said.
Platelets for parking
What would you give for a Longwood Medical Area parking spot? How about a bag of platelets?
It sounds like a good deal to David Read, who has discovered one of Longwood's best-kept secrets: There is free parking — if you're willing to spend a couple of hours at a blood bank.
Read, a vice president at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, gave up his parking pass because he prefers to bike to work from the commuter rail.
But he has to drive once in a while. On those days, he said, "I just donate platelets."
The donations take place at the Kraft Family Blood Donor Center at Dana-Farber and Brigham and Women's. Instead of pay, donors get parking passes — two hours for donating whole blood and 24 hours for platelets.
Several dozen donors a day show up at the center. But that's not enough: The center and its Blood Mobile collect just 18 percent of the whole blood, and 85 percent of the platelets, that patients at the two hospitals need.
Don Greenstein, a regular donor who was giving up his platelets one recent afternoon, said he wasn't motivated by the parking perk. He was motivated by his sister, who was fighting pancreatic cancer.
While his sister was at Dana-Farber, Greenstein, a 59-year-old mediator from Natick, put out his arm to accept a needle. A machine pumped his blood through a centrifuge, separated the platelets, then returned the blood to his arm.
Platelets, which help blood clot, are crucial for cancer patients. Their shelf life outside the body is only five days, so the need for fresh donors is constant.
Greenstein said he has received other perks, such as ice cream, for his frequent visits. One of the best? Hanging out with staff like technician Angel Martinez, who serenaded him with a Steely Dan song during a recent donation.
"It's like coming to family," Greenstein said.
A black flag for power-plant exhaust?
A plan to expand Longwood's power plant that has flown under the radar for months met with an eruption of questions from neighbors concerned about pollution and noise.
A forum last week provided the first real public discussion of a proposal by the Medical Area Total Energy Plant on Brookline Avenue to ramp up production with a third turbine and a new rooftop cooling tower. The first public hearing on Jan. 28, one day after a blizzard, drew no attendees. This one drew dozens.
The plan would allow the plant to switch from natural gas to a dirtier backup fuel, ultralow-sulfur diesel, for up to 5,000 hours per year.
"How will we know when you're switching fuel?" asked Mission Hill neighbor Alison Pultinas. "Is there some kind of beacon? A flag?"
"There'd be no way for you to know," replied Patrick Gillooly of Veolia Energy North America, the plant's vice president of operations.
Pultinas said the plan, which needs more state approvals, would allow the plant to spew out an extra 25.5 tons of particulate matter per year. But that's just a "worst-case scenario," Gillooly assured neighbors; it would happen only if there's "a complete shutdown of the natural gas system in the city of Boston."
Gillooly said he doesn't expect an increase in particulate matter pollution because the plant would shift production away from two less-efficient turbines.
Karen Gately, executive director of Roxbury Tenants of Harvard, which is building an 11-story condominium tower just 150 feet away, requested more time to review the power plant proposal.
"How much louder would it be?" she asked.
Gillooly said the plant is still trying to answer that question, but it's complicated: "There's already so much background noise there."