News & Events

HealthAlliance nurses picket

Union has been without a contract since December

Registered nurses picket outside HealthAlliance Hospital — Leominster Campus yesterday. (JOHN FERRARONE)


LEOMINSTER — A few hundred nurses stood outside HealthAlliance Hospital — Leominster Campus yesterday to take a stand against what they call corporate greed.

Fourteen negotiating sessions over the last six months have failed to produce a new contract for the 230 registered nurses in the Massachusetts Nurses Association union at the hospital.

The union’s last two-year contract expired in December, according to surgical nurse Natalie M. Pereira of Fitchburg, and the union is refusing to budge on some issues.

“This is about patient safety and affordable insurance for nurses,” said Ms. Pereira, as cars passed the pickets on North Street with horns honking and passengers yelling support.

Ms. Pereira, who has worked at the hospital for 30 years, said this is the first picket she has seen at the hospital in 24 years.

“We’ve made concessions and we’re willing to make others, but they are not willing to work with us,” she said.

One sticking point is a requirement that nurses who work 24 hours a week pay 50 percent of their health care premiums, said Ms. Pereira. When the nurses agreed to cut their hours, she said, they were told they would continue to receive full-time benefits. Full-time nurses at the hospital pay 10 percent to 25 percent of their health care premiums, she said.

The union agreed to increase premiums by 5 percent across the board to spread it out, she said.

“They didn’t want that — it wasn’t enough,” she said. “And they say we’re greedy.”

HealthAlliance spokeswoman Mary Lourdes Burke said the company is proposing to change the definition of a full-time nurse from 24 to 30 hours per week. She said the full-time definition for most employees there is 36 hours per week. The proposal would affect 77 of 265 nurses, she said.

“The hospital’s proposal is designed to be fair and equitable to ALL HealthAlliance employees,” Ms. Burke said in an email. “We believe that in this economic environment, most of our nurses understand that our contract proposals are fair and equitable for our entire staff while trying to have a minimal impact on the fewest number of nurses.”

Mary M. Sparks of Westminster, a registered nurse at the hospital for 30 years, said another sticking point is patient safety.

The hospital requires the charge nurse to leave the intermediate care unit, where she works, to help with rapid-response emergency situations, leaving the floor understaffed, she said. The number of patients increases to five or six per nurse when the charge nurse has to leave the floor for an emergency, she said. Nurses consider a ratio higher than one-to-four dangerous, she said.

“Some of the patients we keep on our floor should be in the critical care unit,” said Ms. Sparks. “We understand the need for a rapid responder, but we can’t be leaving patients.”

The rapid responder nurse could be gone for two hours, she said.

“Everybody here lives in this community,” said Ms. Sparks. “We know all the patients that come in and out of the hospital. We just want it to be safe.”

Ms. Burke said the hospital’s emergency response system has been in place for several years. “It is considered a ‘best practice’ in health care, and HealthAlliance Hospital was proud to be one of the first hospitals to adopt this best practice. The response team has proven to improve our patient quality. I understand that on average, the team attends to a patient for less than 25 minutes,” she said.

According to Ms. Burke, the union has never raised concerns about patient safety and quality of care during negotiations. “We are encouraging our community members to check the public websites … which support our statements that our quality, patient safety and staffing levels are appropriate and above many other Massachusetts hospitals.”

Another negotiating session is scheduled for May 16.

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