Morton Hospital Nurses and Health Professionals Plan to Go Public
While the medical community has decried about mandatory overtime as a threat to patient safety, Morton Hospital is using forced overtime as an alternative to providing appropriate staffing for safe care
After posting profits in excess of $5 million and awarding the outgoing CEO a $3 million golden parachute for his retirement, the hospital is seeking a 36 – 50 percent cut in the frontline staff’s pension benefit.
TAUNTON, MA – After more than three months of negotiations over a new contract, the registered nurses and health professionals of Morton Hospital, who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, have decided to alert the public of their concerns that the issues at stake in the negotiations will prevent the hospital from recruiting and retaining the professional staff needed to provide the quality patient care Morton Hospital patients deserve. Specifically, the nurses are seeking a proposal to control the increased use of mandatory overtime as an alternative to providing appropriate staffing for patient units and clinical services and to maintain a stable defined benefit pension plan.
At a time when patients admitted to hospitals are sicker than ever, requiring close monitoring and care by well rested nurses and professionals, the hospital has failed to provide enough staff to give that care, instead forcing clinical staff to work extra hours and double shifts, regardless of the impact this may have on the quality and safety of patient care.
“Exhausted nurses cannot provide safe patient care,” said Joyce Wilkins, RN, chairperson of the nurses’ local bargaining unit. “Do you want your loved one being cared for by a nurse on her sixteenth hour? Those of us providing the care don’t think it’s safe, but we are forced to do it all too often. Forced overtime is becoming a daily occurrence at the hospital, and every time it occurs, a patient is being shortchanged.”
The Morton professionals are not alone in their opposition to mandatory overtime. The practice of using forced overtime to staff hospitals has been widely condemned in recent years and has led to an increase in errors and injuries, and it has also led to a number of high profile nurses’ strikes in Massachusetts and throughout the country. In recent years, a number of studies have been published that show that nurses working forced overtime are three times more likely to make a medical error. The Institute of Medicine, the nation’s most prestigious scientific body, says forced overtime should be banned and that the family members of a patient being cared for by a nurse working forced overtime should have the option of seeking care at an alternative hospital by a nurse not working under duress.
The nurses are seeking changes to their contract language that will require the hospital to provide full staffing to avoid the need for forced overtime, while also providing strict limits on the number of times it can be used. The nurses are also seeking a ban on any nurse being required to work more than 12 hours straight, which is one of the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine.
Protecting Pension Benefit
Morton management has also come to the negotiating table demanding the right to dismantle the nurses’ and health care professionals’ pension benefit, unilaterally changing it from a defined benefit to a defined contribution (401k-type) plan.
According to an analysis of the proposal by one of the nation’s leading pension consulting firms, for most of the professionals at Morton Hospital, a change to a defined contribution pension plan would result in a 36 – 50 percent cut in the employees’ retirement benefit.
“What person would willingly agree to give up a guaranteed and protected retirement benefit for the uncertainty of a 401k plan, especially after what we have seen happen in the last years when the average 401k plan holder lost between 30 to 40 percent of their retirement savings,” Said Steve Krawiec., CLS, a certified laboratory scientist and co-chairperson of the local bargaining unit. “Employees here at Morton feel that this is one of the most important benefits we have, as well as an important tool this hospital has to recruit and retain qualified staff at a time when experienced health care professionals are hard to come by. We are lucky at Morton Hospital to have such an experienced staff with tremendous skill and experience to provide quality care for our patients. The availability of a strong pension benefit is a key to that success.”
Again, the Morton nurses and professionals are supported by the experts on this issue. Time Magazine recently ran a cover story entitled “Why It’s Time to Retire the 401K.” In the article Alicia Munnell, who heads the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College stated, “The time may have come to consider returning 401k plans to their original position as a third tier of retirement planning, behind pensions and Social Security. They should not be the thing we rely on for retirement security.”
The nurses and health professionals are outraged that the demand to give up their pension is coming at a time when the hospital is reporting healthy profits – an estimated $5.1 million for 2009, along with a projected profit of more than $6 million for 2010. Adding insult to injury, the hospital board of trustees recently awarded outgoing CEO Tom Porter an exorbitant retirement bonus of nearly $3 million.
“We health professionals, those who provide 90 percent of the care patients receive, and who have the greatest impact on the success of this hospital are being asked to cut our benefits to pay for a golden parachute for someone who won’t be contributing anything to the care of patients and the future success of this institution,” said Wilkins. “We have given our heart and soul to this hospital and are proud to be a part of this institution. But we believe what our management is doing is unjustified both economically and ethically and we think the public has a right to know how they are treating those who care for them.”
The 411 nurses and health professionals began negotiations for a new contract on October 15, 2009. To date, 12 sessions have been held, with the next session on Feb. 12, 2009. The contract was set to expire on December 31, 2009 but has been extended by mutual agreement until the next session. Beginning next week, the nurses will begin leafleting about these issues outside the hospital, as well as at other public places in the community. The membership has also authorized the committee to conduct informational picketing outside the facility, should that become necessary.
“We care about our community hospital and we want it to thrive,” said Krawiec. “Unlike many Boston hospitals, most employees here are part of the Taunton community. We hope the public will join us in convincing management to change its position at the table, to provide safe working conditions for its staff to ensure safe patient care and to protect those benefits that help ensure this facility continues to employ the highest quality professional staff.”