News & Events

Hospital contract talks getting testy

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By Susan Milton
April 23, 2011 2:00 AM

HYANNIS — The nurses union and the company that owns the Cape’s two hospitals are now arguing publicly about the quality of hospital care for patients as they negotiate a new contract.

The nurses were first to go public this week with a press release that said Cape Cod Healthcare’s administration is refusing to provide the staffing and working conditions necessary for quality patient care.

"The hospital boasts about its ‘quality care’ but continues to ignore the nurses’ plea for improved staffing. How can the hospital say that it puts patients first when it refuses to staff the hospital with the nurses the patients need?" Shannon Sherman said Monday in her role as a registered nurse at Cape Cod Hospital and chairwoman of the Massachusetts Nurses Association’s local bargaining unit.

Cape Cod Healthcare says that its "excellent offer" on the bargaining table places a priority on safe patient care and that it continues to support its nurses, even as other employers and health-care providers cut wages and benefits.

"We are disappointed that the MNA has launched a public campaign that is factually inaccurate and designed to scare and mislead the public," hospital spokesman David Reilly said in a statement Thursday.

He stressed two points: All patients at Cape Cod Hospital and Falmouth Hospital are safe and well-cared for, and, under the hospitals’ three-year offer, all nurses would receive a raise.

But it’s less than the raise requested by the nurses.

Under the current contract, a nurse at Step 2 makes $27.28 per hour and a nurse at Step 12 makes $40.61.

The nurses seek a 2 percent a year cost-of-living increase in addition to a step increase. Nurses at the top of the pay scale would get only the 2 percent increase each year.

As in the previous contract, Cape Cod Healthcare is offering one raise to all nurses — a step increase to nurses who are not at the top of the pay scale and a 2 percent increase to nurses at the top.

Reilly noted that the hospitals have maintained nurses’ pay and benefits even as the economy soured in 2008 and many employers asked for concessions. Pay is the big issue in the negotiations, Reilly believes.

"We have not reached an agreement because the MNA leadership is insisting that all nurses receive two increases per year — a step plus an across-the-board increase," he said.

The company’s offer keeps nurses’ wages at the top of the market, Reilly said, adding that Cape Cod Healthcare has no problems recruiting or retaining nurses.

But union representatives argue that Cape Cod Healthcare can afford to share the good times, just as nurses have helped in bad times. The company has proudly announced $37 million in profits over the past two years, a big turnaround from its earlier losses.

"We know the money is there," Shannon said, noting that the nurses made sacrifices to help the hospitals save money when they weren’t financially stable and now would like "a very fair increase."

The two sides began negotiating in August before existing three-year contracts expired in October, Reilly said. They have met eight times to negotiate and five more times with a federal mediator. They last met April 8.

There are 748 full- and part-time registered nurses on staff at the two hospitals, 535 at Cape Cod Hospital and 213 at Falmouth Hospital, Reilly said. The union says there is a total of 900 to 1,000 nurses, including per diems and travelers. Shannon estimated a total of roughly 600 registered nurses at Cape Cod Hospital and 300 to 400 at Falmouth Hospital.

The nurses have gone public during negotiations before. In 2006, nurses asked the public to sign petitions that called on management to rethink its bargaining position. In 2002, Cape Cod Hospital nurses picketed. This time, nurses have sent letters to Cape Cod Healthcare board members about the issues.

The only change that management is requesting is that new nurses eligible for benefits pay 12 to 15 percent of health-care insurance costs, Reilly said. Currently most nurses at the top of the scale — those employed for 25 years or more — pay 1 percent or less.

Management wants to keep all other current contract provisions, including staffing levels, which Reilly said are safe, among the best in the state, and were agreed to by the union in 2005 and 2008.

The nurses argue those staffing levels need to change because the workplace has changed, Shannon said. She pointed to the construction of the Mugar Tower and the combining of wards at Cape Cod Hospital.

The union also claims that inadequate staffing makes the hospitals rely too much on mandated overtime.

"Nurses should not be forced to work extra hours and double shifts at the expense of their patients. Exhausted nurses cannot provide safe patient care. Do you want a nurse who has been awake for 24 hours caring for you?" said Nicky Powderly, a nurse at Falmouth Hospital and head of the MNA bargaining unit.

The union isn’t asking to eliminate mandatory overtime because "we understand it’ll take time to find the staff and fix the problem," Sherman said, "But we want to limit the use of it and don’t want it abused the way it is."

Cape Cod Healthcare is willing to work with the nurses on the mandatory overtime issue, Reilly said.


Pay at issue

  • The union wants a 2 percent cost-of-living raise for all nurses and a step increase for all nurses below the top step.
  • Cape Cod Healthcare is offering a 2 percent cost of living raise for nurses in the top step and a step increase for all other nurses.

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