The St. Vincent Hospital nurses cast an overwhelming vote on Monday to ratify a new contract, which officially ends the nurses historic strike (301 days long) and clears the path for the hospital to begin recalling nurses to provide care to patients and fully reopen the hospital beds to address the Omicron surge.
The secret ballot vote was held throughout the day on Monday, with nurses announcing the outcome at a press conference following the final vote count. The result: a landslide victory for the nurses, with a final tally of 487 – 9 in favor of ratification. In all 502 ballots were cast, with three ballots left blank and three contested ballots.
”I stand here tonight humbled beyond words by our journey and we are overjoyed to report that our members have cast an overwhelming yes vote to ratify an agreement that officially ends the historic St. Vincent Nurses Strike,” said Marlena Pellegrino, RN, a 35-year nurse at the hospital and co-chair of the nurses local bargaining unit of the Massachusetts Nurses Association. “For nearly 10 months our nurses have walked the line for safer patient care, for the honor of our profession and for the right of all workers who make the difficult decision to engage in a lawful strike to return to their original positions. As we stand here tonight we can proudly say we have achieved our goals.”
“This is an enormous victory for our patients and our members, and it is a testament to the grit and determination of every nurse who walked that line, day in and day out, through four seasons, 18 hours a day, in snow, pouring rain, through blazing heat and stifling humidity – all for the good of our community,” Pellegrino added. “As we conclude this struggle, our eyes are focused on the future, on returning to our home, to the hospital bedside to do what we love the most, which is to provide the high quality care our patients expect and deserve. We go back in that building with our heads held high focused on healing, not only our patients, but to work with all in our hospital community to rebuild and restore a sense of stability, with a commitment to ensure a bright future for St Vincent Hospital.”
On Dec. 17, the 285th day of their historic strike for safer patient care, the 700 nurses reached a tentative agreement with Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare that guarantees striking nurses the right to return to their original positions, and provides the 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 Omicron variant.
The agreement was reached after two weeks of discussions with federal mediators, and finally settled at an in-person session, which was mediated by U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. It comes after two years of negotiations and more than 43 negotiating sessions. It followed what is now the longest nurses strike nationally in over 15 years and the longest nurses strike in Massachusetts history, with more than nine months of picketing, community rallies and marches, tremendous support from federal, state, and municipal public officials who rallied to the nurses’ cause. The strike also garnered the support of faith-based, social justice and labor organizations and their members not only from across the state but from across the world.
The final component of the agreement reached at the final session was 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, while providing a process for the parties to follow in recalling the nurses back to work. Under the agreement, the hospital will have 30 days following ratification to recall all nurses back to the hospital to provide care.
“With this agreement we can go back into that building with great pride not just in what we got in writing in the agreement, but for what we have built together as nurses who know they did everything they could for their patients and their community,” said Dominique Muldoon, RN, a nurse at the hospital and co-chair of the bargaining unit.
The new contract includes improvements in staffing on a number of units sought by the nurses, including enforceable staffing grids and the following specifics:
- A limit of four-patient assignments on the hospital’s cardiac post-surgical unit. Prior to the strike these nurses were often assigned five patients, with no ability to reduce an assignment based on the needs of the patients.
- A mix of four- and five-patient assignments on the seven other medical surgical and telemetry floors, including a limit of four patient assignments on the day and evening shift on the two cardiac telemetry floors. Prior to the strike, these nurses were assigned five patients nearly every day and every shift, with no ability to reduce an assignment based on the needs of the patients.
- No more than five patients assigned to each nurse on the behavioral health unit. Prior to the strike these nurses including the resource nurse were regularly assigned six patients.
- The tentative agreement also includes improvements in the Resource Nurse assignment on many units. Resources nurses provide an additional nurse on the unit who is there to assist with the flow of patients on and off the unit, to provide helping hands to a nurse with a complex patient, or to take on a patient assignment to ensure other nurses have a safer patient load. Resource nurse assignment improvements include:
- No assignment in the intensive care unit, progressive care unit, cardiac step down, emergency department, post anesthesia care unit, operating room, endoscopy and maternity unit;
- 0-2 patient limit for outpatient oncology, and;
- a reduced assignment for the day and evening shift on the behavioral Health unit.
· The agreement also includes language that limits the hospital’s ability to flex nurses, a controversial process where a nurse can be sent home when the employer determines he or she is not needed, which too often has left the nurses still working with unsafe patient assignments after an influx of admissions later in the shift.
While staffing improvements were made in the majority of the patient units the nurses are very clear that work remains in other areas including the maternity unit as well as the emergency department.
“We will now work to make progress in all areas inside the building and hope Tenet leadership commits to do the same,” said Marie Ritacco, RN, a member of the nurses negotiating committee and vice president of the MNA.
One of the key improvements in the agreement is language, which the nurses have sought for a number of years, regarding workplace violence against nurses, who are subject to assault on the job to the same degree as police officers and prison guards. The new language provides two RN seats on the Hospital Workplace Safety Committee, adds new language committing the committee to work to monitor and address issues related to workplace violence, requires the hospital to staff and maintain a metal detector to screen all patients and visitors in the busy ED, and adds contractually enforceable additional staffing by a police detail during the night shift seven days a week and on all three shifts on weekends and holidays. The agreement also provides “assault pay,” for a nurse who is assaulted by a patient or visitor. A nurse who receives workers compensation and who uses sick or vacation pay as the result of a workplace assault for the first five days will have such time restored to their sick/vacation time off bank.
Wages and Benefits
One of the most important enhancements was the nurses’ ability to obtain significantly enhanced health insurance benefit for part-time nurses with all nurses who work 24-hours or more receiving a premium with Tenet paying 80% of the cost, up from 65% for 24-hour nurses previously, which keeps pace with the benefit for nurses working at UMass Memorial Medical Center.
As to wages, the contract provides:
- 2% across the board increases each year of the contract, commencing with the first increase January 1, 2021 and the last increase June 30, 2025;
- Effective August 1, 2021 each nurse not at the max step advances one step (which results in nurses advancing 2 steps in 2021); 1% lump sum bonus for nurses at the top of the wage scale as of December 31, 2021.
- Nurses on the scale will see increases totaling 28% in combined annual across the board and annual step increases, and nurses at max will see 10% in across the board increases and an additional 1% lump sum on base wages based on pay rate on December 31 ,2021.
- Per Diem nurses will receive 3% increases each year of the contract, totaling 15% increases.
- Two options for a 3% lump sum bonus to be paid June 2022: Nurses can opt for a 3% lump sum of 2021 W2 wages, or 3% lump sum bonus based on 2020 W2 wages whichever is greater.
If ratified the contract will run from Jan. 3, 2021– Dec. 31, 2025 and includes 2 years of retroactive pay (2020 and 2021).
“I have nothing but pride and appreciation for all our 700 nurses who sacrificed so much for so long for their patients and this community. There are so many of our members who won’t be impacted by this agreement who stood out there with us every day for their fellow nurses, but more importantly for our patients and for the city we so proudly serve,” Pellegrino concluded. “We have been so moved and uplifted by all the support we received throughout this ordeal, from people honking their horns, or stopping by with food or water, for those who put up signs or walked the line with us, for the dozens of unions, community and faith-based organizations that stood with us and supported us in so many ways, for the efforts of our Congressional leaders like our representatives Jim McGovern and Lori Trahan, Senators Elizbeth Warren and Ed Markey, the many members of the legislative delegation that came out for us, the City Council and Mayor Joe Petty– they all share in this agreement and we thank them all. Our strike was a stand for working people and essential workers all over the world. Our strike struck a chord, and for that and because of that we will walk into that building with our heads held high.”
For more background on the strike and the issues involved, click here to learn more.