The registered nurses of Leominster Hospital, who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association and who have been working to negotiate a new contract with UMass Memorial Health Care for more than a year, cast an overwhelming vote tonight in favor of authorizing a one-day strike in protest to management’s refusal to improve its RN staffing levels inside of the hospital.
The vote by the nurses follows 17 negotiation sessions, the first of which was held last May, as well as two informational pickets and the arrival of a federal mediator to the table this past spring. Key outstanding issues that led to the vote include management’s continued refusal to add RN staffing language to the contract and their insistence on holding to a dangerous proposal that would have charge nurses on the hospital’s critical care unit carrying a regular patient assignment in addition to their other crucial responsibilities.
“None of us want to go on strike,” said Natalie M. Pereira, RN and chairperson of the MNA bargaining unit at the hospital. “But after spending countless hours with management discussing these urgent issues related to patient safety, it has become apparent that our concerns are not being heard. For the health and safety of our patients, we needed to take this next step.”
The strike authorization vote took place from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday at the Leominster Veteran’s Center and nurses cast their vote by secret ballot. While the vote does not mean the nurses will strike immediately, it gives the nurses’ negotiating committee authorization to call a one-day strike if and when they feel it is necessary. Should the committee issue an official notice to strike, the hospital will then have 10 days before the nurses go out on strike.
Long-Standing Concerns Over Staffing and Safe Patient Care Lead to Vote
“Management refuses to improve its RN staffing levels inside of the hospital, even after years and years of cutting nurse staffing to the bone,” said Pereira. “And although our nurses give quality care to all patients each and every day, it is becoming clear that if management does not improve its nurse staffing it will be very difficult to maintain that level of care.”
Early in their prolonged contract talks, the Leominster nurses offered management a staffing proposal that aims to improve the hospital’s RN staffing situation, making one RN responsible for only four patients at a time rather than the six they can care for now. That proposal was built on more than 15 years’ worth of research that says medical/surgical patients have the best outcomes when RNs are caring for no more than four patients at a time.
Similarly, patients in critical care units are now required by a new state law to have one dedicated RN at all times. Leominster Hospital management, however, is refusing to back off from one of its proposals that would result in the charge nurses on critical care floors having a patient assignment while also overseeing the other RNs and managing the general operations of the unit. As a result, the critical care RN in the charge nurse role would inevitably end up caring for more than one patient at a time.
In addition, management is also holding to several contract proposals aimed at cutting nurses’ benefits. Management has justified these cuts — cuts that RNs say will lead to a dangerous turnover in staff — by saying that, in terms of finances, they are aligning the hospital for the future. According to the commonwealth’s Center for Health Information and Analysis (CHIA), during fiscal year 2014 Leominster Hospital was the second most profitable hospital in the UMass system and had more than $153 million in net assets.
“Our hospital is profitable. The UMass system is profitable. Yet, all management wants to do is continuously reduce staffing, eliminate full-time nursing positions, and cut benefits,” added Pereira. “That kind of treatment hurts patients and nurses alike, and ultimately leads to a dangerous turnover in staff. When that happens, everyone loses.”
Other recent reports show that Leominster Hospital is already feeling the effects of its ill-conceived decisions. Leapfrog, a nationwide nonprofit watchdog group that assesses the quality and safety of care in U.S. hospitals, recently gave Leominster Hospital an overall grade of “C.” That score is based on Leapfrog’s review of data that Leominster voluntarily submitted, and it should be noted that it did not submit any data that would have allowed Leapfrog to assess whether or not there were enough nurses working at the hospital to provide safe, quality care.
Meanwhile, CHIA reported last week that Leominster Hospital has seen a 6.4 percent increase in patient readmissions, a rate that is above the state average and indicative of the staffing problems that are plaguing the hospital.
“Management keeps saying that it is all about the patients,” said Pereira. “But if it is all about the patients, why won’t they just agree to the patient safety limits we’ve proposed? Likewise, why won’t they stop cutting staff — RNs, CNAs, dietary staff, physical therapists, and on and on? It needs to stop, and by taking this step toward a strike, we are appealing directly to the public for their support to ensure that UMass puts patients before profits.”