When: Wednesday, Aug. 25 at 7 p.m.
Where: At North Entrance to St. Vincent Hospital, 123 Summer St, Worcester
The striking nurses of St. Vincent Hospital will receive a welcome boost from the community on Wednesday evening as Worcester Interfaith, a community organization comprised of local member congregations, will hold a prayer vigil to support the nurses, the fourth such vigil the organization has held for the nurses since their strike for safer patient care began on March 8. The event will take place on the 171st day of what is the longest nurses strike nationally in over 15 years, and if it continues through Aug. 31, it will become the longest nurses strike in Massachusetts history.
Local clergy participating in the vigil include: Sarai Rivera, Co-Senior Pastor, Christian Community Church; Jose Perez, Pastor, Rock of Salvation Church; Mark Nilson, Pastor, Salem Covenant Church; Evangelist Lady Grace Sterling, RN, Christ Embassy Massachusetts; Sharon Henderson, Covenant St. Andrews United Methodist Church; Vaughn Goodwin, Tri-Chair, Poor Peoples Campaign/1199 SEIU Organizer; Genesis Centeno, a 15-year-old singer from Rock of Salvation Church; and closing the program, striking St. Vincent nurse Moses Makor, RN, Senior Pastor, Christ Vision Ministries.
“Worcester’s faith communities stand in solidarity with the St. Vincent Nurses, as they hold steadfast in seeking safety standards, and stand ready to return to work caring for our community as we confront a potential new surge in COVID 19 due to the Delta Variant,” a flyer promoting the event stated. “We must support our frontline workers who have put their lives and livelihoods at stake to support our most vulnerable residents. This is not the time to negotiate with peoples’ lives. It is our moral imperative to take care of and protect one another. We invite you to stand in Solidarity with the St. Vincent nurses and faith community as we hold a vigil and prayers for their courage and victory and for their ability to go back to work to care for our community during this critical time.”
The decision to hold the vigil follows failed negotiations held last week when the nurses thought they were on the verge of a tentative agreement with Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare that includes staffing improvements the nurses need to end the strike and re-enter the hospital to provide care to their community in the face of an emerging new surge of COVID-19 driven by the Delta variant. Unfortunately, the agreement was scuttled by Tenet, as talked ended on Thursday, after the employer refused to guarantee St. Vincent nurses with 10, 20 or even 40 years of experience at the hospital to return to work in their previous positions in a callous effort to retaliate against the nurses for standing up for their patients and their community.
The nurses have been working through the federal mediators to reach an agreement as quickly as possible to get back into the hospital to provide care to their patients and their community, at a time when COVID-19 is surging and overwhelming facilities in Worcester, particularly UMass Memorial Medical Center. This crisis has already been exacerbated by Tenet Healthcare, as the corporation has spent more than $100 million to force and prolong the strike, while at the same time purposefully closing beds and services, deliberately using the suffering of sick patients in Worcester as leverage against the striking nurses.
“Our members have been clear, they are ready to end the strike and provide care, but there was no way they would end the strike unless all nurses went back whole and that no nurse would lose their job because a for-profit corporation decided to retaliate against nurses for exercising their legal right to advocate for safer conditions for their patients and colleagues,” said Marlena Pellegrino, RN, longtime nurse at the hospital and co-chair of the nurses’ local bargaining unit the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
The nurses who Tenet is refusing to guarantee a return to their positions are the same nurses who provided expert care to their community during the worst public health crisis in our nation’s history. They did so for many months under unsafe staffing conditions, with inadequate PPE and no vaccines, which exposed hundreds of nurses to COVID infection, placing all the nurses’ own lives and their families lives in jeopardy every day.
“This is a callous demand at the 11th hour by our CEO in blatant retaliation against the nurses with only one goal, to punish the nurses for our strike, to break our union and thereby silence our voice as advocates for our patients and our community,” said Pellegrino. “This is yet another example of what our nurses have faced for more than two years, why our nurses cast a vote of no confidence against our CEO during the height of the pandemic in May 2020, and why we went on strike and stayed out on strike all this time.”
Negotiations Held in Secret on Monday and Tuesday
The federal mediator had called both parties to the table on Monday at Worcester State University in an attempt to reach an agreement, where the parties negotiated in secret through Thursday, with Tenet ending the session without making any counter proposal to continue the process towards a settlement.
In an effort to reach a settlement to end the strike and get back to provide care to the community, the nurses agreed to accept the hospital’s last offer, noting that while not providing all that they wanted, it still provided significant staffing improvements that would allow them to re-enter the hospital with pride in what they accomplished. As is typical with all previous strikes, including the 2000 strike against Tenet Healthcare by MNA, the nurses sought to include a “back to work” provision, which guarantees all nurses who went out on strike the right to return to work in the same position, hours, and shift that they worked prior to the strike and provides a process the parties will follow in recalling the nurses. The goal for the nurses in reaching the agreement was to end the rancor of the past months, and for both parties to begin the work of restoring stability to the facility to provide quality care to the patients at this critical time.
Tenet objected to the provision, providing their own back to work agreement that will result in more than 100 nurses to lose their positions, positions the nurse have held for years, building up extensive experience and expertise. Tenet is insisting on callously displacing these seasoned clinicians with replacements, nearly half of whom were newly graduated or novice nurses, many working in highly specialized areas, such as the maternity unit, where no nurse with that level of experience should be allowed to practice independently.
“For a novice nurse coming onto our maternity unit in the best of times it would take at least a year of orientation to the unit before we would allow any of them to provide care independently,” said Chris Donohue, RN a nurse with 35 years’ experience in maternity care. “To put them in that position is dangerous for the patients and unfair to those nurses, particularly now, when we are dealing with the unique issues presented by COVID-19.”
For example, Tenet also operates a Level IIB Nursery that provides care to fragile newborns, who may be delivered as early as 32 weeks. According to information from the hospital’s web site: “A baby in the Special Care Nursery is typically connected to a variety of medical monitors that allow the staff to know exactly what he or she needs at all times. The SCN staff is comprised of registered nurses specializing in the care of premature and sick infants, and they will explain the purpose of every monitor, tube and test used for your baby.” Under management’s return to work plan, two nurses with more than 40-years of experience will lose their positions to novice nurses with no experience caring for these vulnerable babies, nurses who do not have the extensive training and experience necessary to care for these most vulnerable patients; nurses who may be incapable of spotting subtle changes in a baby’s condition, changes that without specific interventions by the nurse could result in a tragic outcome.
“We would ask the public, who would you rather have delivering or caring for your baby, a nurse with 10 – 40 years’ experience, or a nurse with little or no experience in this highly specialized area? It’s clear that Tenet doesn’t care about your answer, but the striking nurses do, ” Donohue added.
“We have reviewed data provided by the hospital that shows most of these nurses have little or no familiarity with the hospital, the physicians or the patients we serve,” said Dominique Muldoon, RN, the other co-chair of the bargaining unit. “Given that there were more than 80 vacancies for nursing positions prior to the strike, and that a number of striking nurses have taken positions at other hospitals over the last several months, there is no reason that the replacement nurses can’t move into one of those positions to augment staffing as the strike nurses are called back to work.”
“What is at stake in this situation is the ability of nurses to advocate for and to care for patients at the most vulnerable time in their lives,” said Marie Ritacco, RN, a member of the nurses negotiating committee and vice president of the MNA. “CEOs come and go, but at the end of the day, nurses are the ones who answer the call light and make the split-second decisions that could save your life. Our union provides us with a protected voice which allows us to fight for you, particularly when a for-profit corporation is willing to sacrifice your safety, as Tenet has done, to boost their stock price for their shareholders.
“We were the nurses in the room with patients gasping their last breaths, holding up an iPad or cell phone to say their final goodbyes to loved ones last year, not anyone wearing a suit from Tenet in Worcester or Dallas,” Ritacco concluded. “We are appalled that they have chosen to cut services this community needs and is threatening us with the loss of our ability to care for you purely out of spite. It is beyond despicable.”
Without an agreement, the strike will continue as the nurses continue to work with the federal mediators to find a way to move the process forward.
For more background on the strike and the issues involved, click here to learn more.