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ST. VINCENT HOSPITAL NURSES: Strike is off the board

Read Worcester Telegram & Gazette article here

Nurses reach tentative pact


"We’re very happy and jubilant right now that we settled on some of the best safe-staffing language in the state."


WORCESTER — St. Vincent Hospital nurses yesterday scuttled plans for a one-day strike that would have started tomorrow, saying they reached a tentative agreement with hospital management for a three-year contract that includes improved staffing provisions.

A vote to ratify the agreement is planned next week.

The proposed contract provides that no nurse would care for more than four to five patients during the day and evening, and no more than five patients at night. The nurses’ previous contract allowed nurses to care for up to six patients during the day and evening, and up to seven patients at night, according to a news release.

“We’re very happy and jubilant right now that we settled on some of the best safe-staffing language in the state,” said Marlena J. Pellegrino, co-chairwoman of the nurses’ bargaining unit.

Hospital management confirmed the agreement, which came after 18 months of negotiation and narrowly averted a showdown with the 740 registered nurses at St. Vincent who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association. Although the nurses described their planned strike as a one-day event, St. Vincent had said it would replace the nurses with temporary nurses for at least five days.

Dennis L. Irish, a hospital spokesman, said management was “delighted” to have an agreement. Staffing changes and wage increases in the proposed contract are expected to add about $4 million in operating costs a year to the hospital, he said.

“Basically they accepted our last, best and final offer. It’s been on the table for two weeks,” Mr. Irish said. “I think they sought to test us until the very end.”

The hospital canceled plans to deploy temporary nurses secured through Modern Staffing & Security Inc. of Sarasota, Fla. Some of the replacement nurses had already arrived in Massachusetts as of yesterday and will be paid according to the terms of a contract with Modern Staffing, Mr. Irish said.

St. Vincent Hospital is an acute-care hospital in downtown Worcester that operates 298 beds. Its owner, Vanguard Health Systems Inc. of Nashville, Tenn., also owns MetroWest Medical Center in Framingham and Natick.

The nurses’ contract with St. Vincent Hospital initially expired in December 2009 and was extended a number of times while talks for a new agreement continued. Without an agreement, the contract would have expired yesterday.

A federal mediator began assisting negotiations in recent weeks, and U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Worcester, encouraged both sides to keep talking.

The nurses said their concerns focused on staffing levels. They argued for lowering the number of patients any single nurse would be required to care for on a shift. Hospital managers said they offered to increase staffing and believed nurses were acting as part of a wider agenda of National Nurses United, a union that is affiliated with the Massachusetts Nurses Association. Both sides accused the other of lying.

Negotiations Wednesday lasted six hours and produced a contract that would run from Jan. 1, 2010, to Dec. 31, 2012.

In addition to changes in the number of patients nurses would handle, the nurses attained assurances of staffing changes in the maternity unit and nursing care for critical-care patients in beds outside the intensive care unit, according to the Massachusetts Nurses Association. A “resource nurse” with a limited assignment to care for no more than two patients would be added to medical-surgical units and units monitoring cardiovascular patients as a way to assist other nurses.

The contract also provides for a 1 percent wage increase effective Jan. 1, 2011, and another 1 percent wage increase in 2012, according to the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

Ms. Pellegrino said she expects nurses to ratify the contract. She said she does not anticipate nurses will find it difficult to get on with their work alongside management after the long negotiations.

“As far as the nurses, I don’t think it’ll be difficult at all,” Ms. Pellegrino said. “We’re professionals.”