The registered nurses of Northeast Hospital Corp., who are negotiating a new contract, voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday, March 23 to authorize a three-day strike to protest their administration’s failure to ensure appropriate staffing conditions and a competitive wage structure that would allow the recruitment and retention of the nursing staff needed to deliver quality patient care.
Northeast Hospital Corporation is owned by the Beth Israel Lahey Health System, and is comprised of Beverly Hospital, Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester, and Lahey Outpatient Center in Danvers.
“We have been urging our administration for a year to work with us to address a longstanding staffing crisis, as they fail to recognize the urgency to retain and recruit valuable, experienced nurses in our community hospitals,” said Larn Beard, RN, a Special Care Nursery RN at Beverly Hospital and co-chair of the nurses local bargaining unit with the Massachusetts Nurses Association. “We have lost hundreds of nurses in the two plus years, nearly 40 percent of our nursing workforce, and that exodus has accelerated as more than 100 nurses have left in the last six months alone. We were forced to hold this strike vote in order to move our administration to finally come to a reasonable agreement that supports our call for competitive wages and benefits, and a commitment to maintain appropriate staffing levels that we need to begin to heal our hospitals and it’s nurses so we can provide the safest care for our patients and our community.”
The secret ballot was held by mail for two weeks in March, with the final in-person voting held on Wednesday at three locations — in Beverly, Danvers and Gloucester The vote does not mean the nurses will strike immediately. It gives the negotiating committee the authorization to call a three-day strike if and when they feel it is necessary. Once the committee issues its official notice to strike, the hospital will then have 10 days before the nurses will go out on strike.
The combination of the administration’s failure to ensure safe staffing levels for years, while providing the lowest wages for nurses in the region, as well as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the stress it has placed on staff, has caused more than 320 nurses to leave the three facilities over the last three years alone, and as of January, the system was still down over 100 nurses and the loss to the community of 3,800 hours or RN patient care per week. The departures have accelerated: In just the six months between August 2021 and January 2022, another 100 RNs left, resulting in the loss of 1,880 RN patient care hours per week.
“The devastation of seeing our community suffer is unifying the nurses at Beverly Hospital and Addison Gilbert Hospital. The overwhelming burdens of unsafe staffing due to higher patient acuity and low wages have been issues long before the pandemic of 2020. These conditions have driven too many nurses away, and the majority who left were brilliant, compassionate caregivers who felt unsafe, understaffed and under paid,” said Arianna Marquis, RN, a nurse who has worked on one of Beverly Hospital’s medical-surgical/telemetry floors for 11 years. “New graduate nurses are voicing burnout so soon into their careers and fear for their licenses. Experienced nurses find themselves in constant mourning over the exceptional care they were unable to provide due to no fault of their own. The love for our community and remaining co-workers is what keeps myself and others at the hospital, but the future of this facility lies in the hands of our administration and their willingness to heed our concerns and negotiate appropriate solutions. I’m hoping we can mutually agree that patient safety should always be first priority.”
For its part, Northeast Hospital Corp., rather than taking aggressive steps to recruit and retain nurses into the hospital, the administration for years resorted to the dangerous practice of using mandatory overtime, forcing a nurse to work extra hours or an entire shift, to compensate for their failure to have appropriate staff on hand to provide patient care. The state in 2012 passed a law banning its use in the state’s acute care hospitals, yet NHC had until recently insisted on a contractual exception from the law and ordered mandatory overtime at a higher rate than just about any Mass. hospital. Nurses at NHC were subject to 83 mandations from Sept. 2020 through Aug. 2021, with an average time of forced overtime of 6.1 hours beyond the RN’s shift. Keep in mind that peer reviewed research shows that nurses working mandatory overtime are more likely to make an error in their care. The corporation has said they would agree to language in the contract to end mandatory overtime, but only if the nurses drop all their remaining proposals and accept all of the company’s proposals.
Adding insult to the ongoing moral injury faced by nurses working under these untenable conditions, the nurses of NHC are among the lowest paid nurses in the region, while NHC is among the most profitable hospital systems in the state, even during the pandemic.
Northeast nurses are paid between 11% – 16% less than nurses at other MNA represented hospitals within 30 miles, including North Shore Medical Center, despite the fact that NHC hospitals enjoy a profit margin of 12.8 percent, more than five times the state average. (Source: Mass Commission on Healthcare Information and Analysis Hospital Profiles for 2020, released 9/21/2021. The state average during the same reporting period was 2.6%).
To address the crisis, the nurses are currently in negotiations for a new contract that they hope will include the addition of more nurses, as well as wage and differential increases to allow the hospital to recruit and retain needed staff. Thus far, the hospital has refused to provide a contractual commitment to maintain adequate staff levels sought by the nurses, though they have agreed to contractual language to follow the law prohibiting the use of mandatory overtime as a staffing tool. The nurses are also seeking contractual commitment of affordable healthcare, something they consider to be quite basic for hospital workers in a pandemic or at any other time. While there has been some movement on the issue of wages, the hospital’s latest proposal still fails to bring the NHC nurses up to parity with the rest of the market.
The struggle by the nurses for better staffing and benefits has won strong support from the broader labor community, according to Adam “Kaz” Kaszynski, who heads IUE-CWA Local 201 and who serves as the current president of the Northshore Labor Council, AFL-CIO, a coalition of 50 local unions representing more than 18,000 workers and their families in the region. “Thousands of our members around the Northshore rely on these hospitals, and are being denied essential care due to the company’s unwillingness to provide safe staffing levels, adequate wages, and benefits to retain hardworking nurses,” said Kaszynski. “As a community we need to support these nurses because what is at stake in this negotiation is the health and safety of all patients and families who depend on these facilities for life-saving care.”
“When we are struggling to care for patients who are literally fighting for their lives, it is unfair to us and to them to force us to work under such conditions, yet we do the best we can every day and it is up to our administrators to finally do the same,” Beard concluded.