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Labor board cites hospital for infringing on nurses’ rights during ballot campaign

Question 1 on last fall’s statewide ballot would have set strict limits on the numbers of patients assigned to nurses working in Massachusetts hospitals. The nurses union has long supported such limits and argues that they’re necessary for patients to receive safe care.
Question 1 on last fall’s statewide ballot would have set strict limits on the numbers of patients assigned to nurses working in Massachusetts hospitals. The nurses union has long supported such limits and argues that they’re necessary for patients to receive safe care.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File)

Before last November’s election, as the debate over a ballot question to regulate nurse staffing intensified, several members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association wanted to display their support by wearing “Yes on 1” pins.

But hospital executives who strongly opposed the ballot measure known as Question 1 sometimes intimidated nurses who expressed their support this way, according to the nurses union.

The National Labor Relations Board investigated the union’s complaints against three hospitals. This week, the board settled allegations of unfair labor practices with Heywood Hospital in Gardner. The board also said last month that Marlborough Hospital and Lawrence General Hospital may have violated labor law, but it chose not to take any action and moved to dismiss those two complaints.

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Question 1 on last fall’s statewide ballot would have set strict limits on the numbers of patients assigned to nurses working in Massachusetts hospitals. The nurses union has long supported such limits and argues that they’re necessary for patients to receive safe care.

Hospital executives said the ballot question was overly rigid and expensive and that it would have forced some hospitals to cut important services, or even close altogether.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected the measure, with 70 percent saying no and 30 percent voting yes.

Union officials said two longtime nurses at Heywood Hospital were threatened with discipline in September for sporting buttons that promoted Question 1.

“I was wearing a button on my scrubs to show support for safe patient limits, as I had done many times in the past for other causes that were important to me,” nurse Lisa Sullivan said in a statement. “The hospital came down on nurses and patients who supported safe patient limits, even as the hospital itself was holding meetings against Question 1 and posting signs all over the building.”

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Heywood Hospital, according to its settlement with the National Labor Relations Board, must post notices in the hospital and e-mail employees about their rights.

For example, the notice must say: “WE WILL NOT tell our employees that they may not wear, or that they will be disciplined for wearing, ‘MNA political items,’ or political buttons at work.”

“Heywood Hospital understands and acknowledges the outcome of the MNA NRLB unfair labor practice,” Dawn Casavant, a Heywood vice president, said in an e-mail. “We . . . are eager to move forward and focus our collective efforts on providing the highest quality care for our patients.”

The nurses union also accused Marlborough Hospital and Lawrence General of prohibiting workers from wearing clothing that showed their support for Question 1. Officials at the labor relations board said in February that they would not proceed with those charges because these hospitals don’t have histories of violating labor law, and because the ballot campaign ended months ago.

These complaints are to be dismissed after six months, as long as the hospitals don’t engage in any other unfair labor practices in that time.

Ellen Carlucci, a spokeswoman for Marlborough Hospital, part of the UMass Memorial system, said hospital officials didn’t discipline any nurses for wearing buttons. But one employee came to work wearing a bumper sticker.

“That is not attire that we would find acceptable,” she said. The employee was asked to change into a new scrub top.

Lawrence General Hospital did not comment on the allegations Thursday.

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Union officials allege that nurses were intimidated at many other hospitals, but they did not pursue any other formal complaints.

“The voters have already overwhelmingly made their preference known on Question 1,” officials at the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association said in a statement Thursday. “Our focus is on working together in each and every hospital with every team member to ensure that patients in Massachusetts continue to receive the best health care in the world.”

The contentious issue dominated the political conversation in the weeks leading up to the election. A committee funded by the hospital association spent nearly $25 million to defeat the measure — the most ever spent by a single committee in state history. Much of the money went to television ads.

Hospitals spent twice as much to defeat the ballot question as the union’s campaign committee spent to promote it.


Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey @globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.