News & Events

St. V’s labor talks heading to the wire

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St. Vincent nurses present testimony in March about what they say are unsafe staffing conditions that jeopardize patient care. (T&G File Photo/CHRISTINE PETERSON)


WORCESTER — St. Vincent Hospital nurses and managers are preparing for a nurses’ strike Friday, even as they head back to the negotiating table today for contract talks.

Nurses gathered yesterday at their union office on Shrewsbury Street to discuss strike procedures and plan picketing, while the hospital got ready for the arrival of replacement nurses.

Both sides said they want to avoid a strike, which would begin at 6 a.m. Friday. But rhetoric in the dispute, which has focused largely on nurse staffing levels at St. Vincent Hospital, heated up. The nurses and management accused each other of lying and being manipulated by larger forces.

“Nurses are ready and willing to do what is necessary to stand up for patients,” said Marlena Pellegrino. “Of course, the goal is always to avert a strike.”

St. Vincent Hospital is an acute-care facility operating 298 beds, including 28 psychiatric beds. Vanguard Health Systems Inc. of Nashville, Tenn., owns the hospital.

St. Vincent’s contract with its 740 nurses, who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, initially expired in December 2009 and has been repeatedly extended. A federal mediator began working with both sides in recent weeks. The most recent talks Sunday stretched into Monday and ended without a resolution.

U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Worcester, has been in contact with both sides after being “drafted” by the nurses and hospital, according to his spokesman, Michael D. Mershon.

“He’s been talking to both sides and encouraging them to continue negotiating and offering some suggestions about how they can move forward,” Mr. Mershon wrote in an e-mail.

The hospital reported it has contracted with Modern Staffing & Security Inc. of Sarasota, Fla., to provide temporary nurses in the event of a strike. The number of replacement nurses that could be deployed in Worcester was not available yesterday. All would be licensed to work in Massachusetts, according to Dennis L. Irish, a spokesman for the hospital and Vanguard vice president for government and community relations.

Supervisors and managers who are registered nurses plus doctors and other hospital personnel also would work with the temporary nurses, the hospital said.

“Additionally, we have been in contact with the (state) Department of Public Health to be in total compliance with all the applicable rules and regulations,” Teri Hegarty, St. Vincent manager of marketing and public relations, said in an email. “Should a nurses’ strike occur, DPH will be on-site 24/7 to provide real-time monitoring and assistance.”

St. Vincent Hospital does not plan to close its emergency room.

UMass Memorial Health Care, which operates two hospitals in Worcester, has been watching the St. Vincent situation closely and preparing its own contingency plans in case it must care for additional patients. The health system has been making sure both Worcester emergency rooms are prepared for an increase in volume and that staff can be added across a number of units, including neonatal intensive care and catheterization labs, said Dr. Jennifer Daley, UMass Memorial chief operating officer.

“We just want to make sure the patients get the care that they need in a timely way and we’re serving the Worcester community the way it needs to be served,” Dr. Daley said.

Although the St. Vincent nurses have called for a one-day strike, those who walk off the job may be out of work longer.

Mr. Irish said that if a strike occurs, temporary nurses will work for five days. The hospital was required to assure temporary nurses of five days of work, Mr. Irish said. In addition, hospital officials believe it would be too disruptive to patients to turn over the entire nursing staff twice in a period of about 24 hours, he said.

The nurses’ leaders claim that constitutes a lock-out.

“Our position is that it is a 24-hour strike,” said Marie E. Ritacco, a member of the nurses’ negotiating team. If a strike occurs, nurses intend to go back to work at 6:45 a.m. Saturday, she said. “We’ve told the hospital that that’s what we’ll be doing.”