News & Events

Tobey Hospital nurses call for mediation in contract dispute

The 125 registered nurses of Tobey Hospital in Wareham are working with a federal mediator in an attempt to break the logjam in negotiations for a new union contract. Talks have stalled over the hospital’s refusal to correct inequities in the placement of nurses on the agreed salary scale; below market differentials paid to nurses working on-call and on the night shift; and the hospital’s refusal to establish differentials recognizing the level of professional education achieved by nurses.

“At a time when the Southcoast Hospitals Group, which owns Tobey Hospital, is seeking special certification as a Magnet hospital—which is supposed to reflect its commitment to a supportive environment for nurses—Southcoast is doing everything it can to show they don’t value or respect the nursing staff at Tobey, particularly very experienced, highly skilled nurses who have given years of service to the hospital,” said Sharon Barsano, an RN in the intensive care unit and chair of the nurses’ local bargaining unit.

“The key issue in dispute has to do with making sure that nurses are getting paid based on their years of experience. Nurses who have been hired in recent years have received appropriate credit for their nursing experience when placed on the salary scale. But nurses who have worked at Tobey for many years, and who agreed to salary freezes when Tobey was in trouble financially, now find that they are being paid less than new hires who have the same experience. We are trying to correct this inequity.” The parties began negotiations on Sept. 29, 2006 and, to date, nine bargaining sessions have been held. The contract officially expired on Sept. 30, 2006, but has been extended by mutual consent of both parties through the end of March. The federal mediator has attended three meetings, with the next bargaining session scheduled for April 26.

Misplacement of RNs on salary scale For years at Tobey Hospital, nurses have had a step salary scale in place. Nurses advance a step for each year of service. Nurses are supposed to automatically move up a step on the scale on the anniversary date of their year of hire. In 1992, 1996 and 1999 the nurses agreed to temporary freezes of the scale to help the hospital through rough financial periods. As a result of these freezes, nurses hired in the late 1980s and through the 1990s have not kept pace in their step movements, and now find that nurses hired more recently have received appropriate credit for their years of experience at other hospitals and now are at a higher step than their peers who have the same years of experience at Tobey. One nurse hired in 1986 is still three years away from reaching top pay in the salary schedule, resulting in a loss in pay of $4.75 per hour ($9,800 per year).

In response to an MNA request, Southcoast responded that it does not have a written policy regarding step placement, but “per practice, step placement is determined after a review of a nurse’s years of related experience and of ’internal equity’ considerations.” The MNA has determined that there is no ’internal equity’ and is committed to rectifying this unfairness in an objective, transparent manner.

“This is about equal pay for equal experience,” said Barsano. “It’s also about the hospital correcting the inequities for the Tobey nurses who have provided years of dedicated service to patients.”

How widespread is the problem?

The MNA originally identified 16 nurses who were not on the pay step that corresponds to their nursing experience. Judy Daly, a respected medical/surgical nurse, was part of this initial group. She is a past recipient of the President’s Award for Excellence for going above and beyond in her role as a staff nurse. The hospital reviewed her rate of pay and determined that she had not received a step that was due to her in 2000. While advancing her one step in February, the hospital took the position that it was Ms.

Daly’s fault for not informing them that her pay was incorrect.

In a letter to the hospital, Daly stated, “I am not seeking to place blame, nor however will I accept being blamed. I am worth every penny that Southcoast has paid me, and every penny that they haven’t.”

This issue is not just about Daly. Every nurse works hard to deliver the highest quality patient care. If nurses make a mistake, they are held accountable. Why wouldn’t Southcoast take responsibility for its mistake and be held to the same level of accountability?

The union has since asked for a complete list of all remaining nurses to see just how many have been shortchanged.

Below market differentials

In addition to pay inequities for nurses, the hospital also provides below-market differentials for nurses who work the night shift and for those who agree to be on-call. For example, nurses on the night shift are paid a shift differential of $4.50 per hour, when other hospitals in the areas, such as Jordan Hospital, pay $5 per hour. Tobey nurses on call are paid $3 for the hours they are on call, while Jordan pays $4 per hour.

“Recruiting for the night shift is particularly difficult, and paying a competitive differential is essential in order for our hospital to staff adequately around-the-clock to provide the care our patients deserve,” Barsano said.

Hospitals Group is seeking what is known as “Magnet” status, which is a special credentialing program that grants what amounts to a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for its nursing program and its treatment of nurses. One of the tenets of achieving Magnet status is the need to reward and develop a highly educated nursing staff. However, the treatment of nurses at Tobey is evidence that the hospital is not representative of a facility that values or respects its nurses.

Among the issues in dispute in the negotiations is the hospital’s refusal to pay a degree differential for nurses who achieve either a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nursing. The hospital has also refused to pay a certification differential, which involves intensive work in a specialty that enhances the practice of a nurse in providing quality care. Tobey used to pay these differentials, but discontinued the payments six years ago due to fiscal constraints. Such rewards for higher education and certification in nursing are common in hospitals in Massachusetts, including many MNA-represented facilities and Magnet-designated hospitals.

“How can you say you value the best in nursing when you won’t take common steps to reward and encourage professional development of your staff,” Barsano said.

The nurses hope the presence of a federal mediator will move the talks forward and help reach a fair and equitable resolution to the current dispute. If not, the nurses plan to continue to reach out to the public for support in their effort.

“In this competitive environment for top nursing talent, it takes a real commitment by management to do what is necessary to keep their nurses happy and to entice new nurses to join the team,” Barsano concluded. “We believe that the nurses provide excellent patient care at Tobey. It is in the best interest of all involved to be fair to the nurses.”