Tuesday, September 30 from 4 – 6 p.m.
As Contract Talks Stall Over Staffing, Overtime and Wages
NORTHAMPTON, MA — The registered nurses of Cooley Dickinson Hospital (CDH), who are negotiating a new contract, have submitted the required 10-day notice to conduct an informational picket outside the Northampton-based hospital on Sept. 30 from 4 – 6 p.m.
According to the nurses, who are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association/National Nurses United, after 22 negotiating sessions held over the last 10 months, contract talks have stalled over CDH’s plan to increase the use of unpaid overtime up to an hour after a nurse’s 8, 10, or 12 hour shift; their refusal to provide safe patient assignments for “charge” nurses who are there to respond to patients in emergency situations; and management’s failure to offer a fair wage proposal that recognizes the contributions and value of nurses.
Nurses, who provide 90 percent of the care that patients receive and who give their heart and soul every day to ensure their safety, are appalled that CDH continues to place its desire for profits ahead of its concern for patients and those who care for them,” said Sally Surgen, RN, a long time nurse at CDH and chair of the MNA/NNU Local Bargaining Unit at the hospital.
Overtime is Key Sticking Point
The key issue preventing a settlement is CDH’s demand to eliminate the requirement that the employer pay overtime for up to an hour worked beyond the end of an eight, ten or twelve hour shift. The nurses adamantly oppose this practice because they believe it is a ploy by the hospital to use overtime as an alternative to providing appropriate RN staffing to meet the needs of patients, or to ensure that a nurse is able to take her/his 30 minute lunch break. In fact, a recent survey of nurses found that greater than 90 percent oppose this practice and the vast majority of nurses report that the current use of overtime is directly attributable to the lack of appropriate staff at the hospital.
“Our position on overtime benefits is not a financial issue, it is an issue of patient safety. The fact is, studies show that the use of overtime as a staffing tool is detrimental to patient care, leading to an increase in medical errors and other poor outcomes,” said Sally Surgen, RN, a long time nurse at CDH and chair of the MNA/NNU Local Bargaining Unit at the hospital. “Our overtime pay benefit imposes a penalty on the hospital when they utilize inadequate staffing patterns. With adequate staffing, nurses are able to provide optimum care and ultimately can punch out on time. When staffing is inadequate nurses end up working beyond their shift, which could be construed as mandatory overtime, which now is illegal in Massachusetts.”
The Need for Charge Nurses with a Safe Assignment
Another key sticking point is management’s refusal to agree to contract language that would guarantee “charge nurses” a reduced patient assignment. Charge nurses provide a valuable role on all hospital units, overseeing the assignment of patients among other staff on the unit, ensuring an efficient flow of patients in and out of the unit, communicating with physicians and others to ensure patients receive the care they need and most importantly, providing an extra pair of hands when a patient crisis occurs. There is no way a charge nurse can fulfill this role when they are also expected to carry a full patient assignment of their own.
The final issue preventing a settlement is the hospital’s latest wage offer which is for a mere two percent salary increase for the three years covered by the agreement, including a .5 across the board increase for 2014 (which is contingent upon the nurses reaching an agreement before Sept. 30), a 1 percent increase in July 2015 and a .5 percent increase in July 2016. The agreement would also create a new top step to the salary scare in 2015, which would award a 1 percent increase for nurses with 30 years of experience.
For their part, nurses are seeking a fair salary increase in keeping with the cost of living and in recognition of the contribution they make to the quality and safety of patient care.
“While this dispute is not about money, the hospital’s salary proposal is insulting at best,” Surgen said. “We just want them to be fair to those who provide the care.”
The Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents the nurses at CDH, takes issue with the lack of effort by management to negotiate a fair settlement with the nurses given the fact that Partners HealthCare (the owner of the facility) is the most profitable health care system in the state, if not all of New England, having generated more than $10 billion in revenues and having posted profits of more than $600 million.
“It is appalling that while refusing to ensure appropriate staffing and safe patient assignments for nurses, CDH management continues to insist that nurses and patients subsidize Partners enormous profit margins and expansion plans,” said Roland Goff, Director of Labor Relations for the MNA/NNU who oversees contract negotiations between MNA/NNU-represented nurses at a number of Partners-owned facilities.
The nurses and management began negotiations for a new contract on November 5, 2013 and to date, 22 sessions have been held between the parties, with the last four held with a federal mediator. Last month, the nurses filed an unfair labor practice charge against the hospital with the National Labor Relations Board for bad faith bargaining, following an incident where the hospital agreed to a proposal at the table and then later placed conditions on the agreement which would have required the nurses to agree to the changes to overtime. The nurses believe this constitutes a violation of federal labor law.
The last negotiating session was held on Sept, 9. The nurses issued their notice to conduct an informational picket after a survey of the nurses found 96 percent support the job action, and after an open meeting with members on Sept. 16.
“We are taking this action because we believe the public has a right to know what is at stake in these negotiations, as the issues in dispute will have a direct impact on the care they and their loved ones receive at our community hospital,” Surgen concluded.