From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
March 2010 Edition
|From left, Kara Mello, Jen Rogers, Rebecca Emond and Scott Reis
After working for more than five months to negotiate the terms of a new contract, the MNA’s RNs and health professionals at Morton Hospital recently began a leafleting campaign that informs the public about the issues at stake in the negotiations and how the recruitment and retention of professional staff are suffering as a result. Bargaining unit members are also making it clear during their leafleting that patient safety at Morton Hospital will continue to suffer if management keeps to its current course.
One of the bargaining unit’s most important contract proposals is language that would control the hospital’s use of mandatory overtime as an alternative to providing appropriate staffing. Also on the table: a proposal that aims to maintain a stable, defined benefit pension plan.
Today’s patients come to the hospital sicker than ever before and require closer monitoring and care as a result—monitoring and care that should be provided by well-rested nurses and health professionals. Management at Morton Hospital, however, seems to take the opposing view when it comes to managing this scenario and, instead, refuses to provide enough staff to give patients the quality care they deserve.
As a result, Morton’s RNs and health care professionals must work extra hours and double shifts, regardless of how care and safety are affected.
“Exhausted nurses cannot provide safe patient care,” said Joyce Wilkins, RN and chairperson of the MNA bargaining unit at Morton. “Do you want your loved one being cared for by a nurse on her sixteenth hour? Those of us who provide the care do not think it is safe, but we are forced to do it all too often. It is becoming a daily occurrence at the hospital.”
The Morton professionals are not alone in their opposition to mandatory OT. The use of forced overtime has been widely condemned in recent years, and there is extensive evidence showing that it can lead to increases in both patient injuries and medical errors. Recent studies even show that nurses mandated to work overtime are three times more likely to make a medical error.
The MNA members at Morton are seeking changes to their contract language that will require the hospital to provide full staffing to avoid the need for forced overtime, as well as provide strict limits on how often management can use forced overtime. In addition, the union wants a ban on nurses being required to work more than 12 hours straight, which is the limitation recommended by the Institute of Medicine.
Protecting pension benefit
Morton management has also come to the negotiating table demanding the right to dismantle the members’ 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, the management’s change to the defined contribution plan would result in a 36 to 50 percent cut in most employees’ retirement benefits.
“What person would willingly agree to give up a guaranteed and protected retirement benefit for the uncertainty of a 401k plan in times like these,” said Steve Krawiec, a certified laboratory scientist and co-chairperson of the bargaining unit. “The average 401k plan holder lost between 30 to 40 percent of their retirement savings in the last few years.”
The MNA members at Morton feel strongly that their defined benefit pension plan is one of their most vital benefits. It is also seen as one of the most attractive benefits when it comes to recruiting and retaining qualified staff— particularly 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,” added Krawiec. “The availability of a strong pension benefit is a key to that success.”
The experts on this issue also support the Morton nurses and professionals. 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 at Morton 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 influence 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 hearts and souls to this hospital and we are proud to be a part of this institution. But we believe that what 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 provide their care.”
The 400-plus nurses and health professionals at Morton began negotiating a new contract in October. To date, they have participated in 14 sessions. In late February, the union began handing out leaflets to the public outside the hospital and at other public places throughout the community. The membership has also authorized the committee to conduct informational picketing, the first of which was held in March.
“We care about our community hospital and we want it to thrive,” said Krawiec. “Unlike other big city 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 that this facility continues to employ the highest quality professional staff.”