Every day, Tufts Medical Center has patients waiting for new hearts. At the critical moment when a donor becomes available, a team of care providers launches into action to carry out a complex, life-saving operation.
Next week, that moment could arrive while Tufts’ 1,200 unionized nurses are on strike, and hospital officials say they will be ready.
The Massachusetts Nurses Association is planning a July 12 strike of its members at Tufts, after more than 14 months of negotiations with hospital officials have failed to result in a new contract.
Both sides are scheduled to meet again Friday to try to hash out an agreement on wages, benefits, and staffing. Without a contract deal, nurses are scheduled to walk out at 7 a.m. and strike for 24 hours. Tufts plans to lock out striking nurses and use replacement workers for at least five days.
Tufts, though it’s smaller than some of the city’s other major teaching hospitals, treats many complex and seriously ill patients, from premature babies to cancer patients to those suffering from trauma. Hospital officials insist they will keep their facility fully operational during the planned strike.
They said they don’t plan to cancel surgeries or patient appointments, and that they will be able to perform even the most complex procedures, such as heart transplants, without their regularly scheduled nurses. About 120 Tufts patients are on the list for heart transplants.
Tufts officials said they’re working with a staffing agency to hire about 300 replacement nurses who have experience giving complex care. Although Tufts employs more than 1,200 union nurses, only a fraction of them work at any given time, the hospital noted, so 300 replacements will be sufficient.
The staffing agency, U.S. Nursing, is recruiting temps from across the country to work if the strike occurs at Tufts. The company is advertising pay of $65 an hour for qualified nurses who travel to work in Massachusetts, and $500 bonuses for those who refer other nurses.
Terry Hudson-Jinks, chief nursing officer at Tufts, said the hospital has been preparing for a potential strike for many months and is confident in its plan.
“We went to each area we need the replacement nurses to cover and outlined specifically what skill sets we need the nurses to have,” Hudson-Jinks said.
She said the replacement workers will have off-site training before they begin their shifts at the hospital: “Well before they land on the unit, they’ve got a lot of information.”
But the Mass. Nurses Association called the hospital’s plan irresponsible.
“I would not want to be a patient being cared for in a hospital where all the nurses coming in had never worked in that hospital before,” said David Schildmeier, a union spokesman.
“[They’ll] walk into that hospital cold and expect to be able to work all the systems, the computer systems . . . to work with the physicians,” Schildmeier said. “These nurses have lives in their hands.”
Tufts is following a different strategy than one of its larger competitors, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which was threatened with a strike of 3,300 nurses last summer. The walkout ultimately was avoided.
Brigham, like Tufts, hired replacement workers. But it also worked to slash operations to about 60 percent of normal. Hundreds of Brigham patients were transferred from the hospital or had their appointments and procedures canceled in anticipation of the planned strike.
Tufts, which had 230 patients Monday out of a total of more than 400 beds, is not planning patient transfers.
“We want to be here for our patients when they need us,” Hudson-Jinks said. “We believe this is right for the patients that we serve.”
The state Department of Public Health is in touch with hospital officials about the planned strike.
“The department is committed to ensuring the highest levels of patient care and safety at Tufts Medical Center,” spokesman Tom Lyons said in a statement. “We have been working closely with hospital leadership to prepare for the possibility of the MNA strike, and we will continue to monitor the situation throughout the coming days to ensure patients receive safe, effective, and high-quality care.”
Strike preparations are not new for Tufts: The hospital prepared for a nurses strike in 2011, although the strike was avoided when a settlement was reached just hours before it was supposed to begin.
The nurses association held a strike last week at a community hospital in Greenfield, Baystate Franklin Medical Center. Baystate said it canceled and rescheduled some cardiac rehab and pain center patients but that surgeries and other procedures were held as scheduled. The hospital hired about 60 temporary nurses to work during the one-day strike and a subsequent lockout.