Issues of staffing, pay and benefits addressed in settlement reflect the needs to be addressed for all nurses in the Commonwealth as reported in statewide survey of nurses released in conjunction with National Nurses Week (May 6 – 12)
BEVERLY, Mass. – The registered nurses of Northeast Hospital Corp are celebrating National Nurses Week (May 6 – 12) with a new three-year contract that includes long sought improvements in RN staffing levels, competitive wage increases and improved health insurance benefits to allow the recruitment and retention of the nursing staff needed to deliver quality patient care.
The agreement was reached after seven months of negotiations on April 20 and the nurses cast an overwhelming vote to ratify the new pact last week. 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 are thrilled to have reached this settlement and we hope it provides us with the resources and support we need to ensure our nurses can provide the first-rate care our patients and families expect and deserve,” 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. “This week, the nation celebrates the role and value of nurses across the nation, and this agreement represents an acknowledgement of the value we bring to our facilities and to Lahey Health.”
The negotiations by the nurses were driven by the nurses’ concerns about inadequate staffing conditions and the fact that they were paid the lowest wages in the region, as well as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which caused more than 320 nurses to leave the three facilities over the last three years alone. The nurses raised the stakes of the negotiations on March 23, when they cast an overwhelming vote to authorize a three-day strike over these issues, which ultimately resulted in more fruitful discussions that led to the final agreement.
- Staffing: the pact includes a requirement that the hospital ensure the provision of charge nurses on nearly every hospital unit with no assignment, or (in certain other departments) a reduced assignment. Charge nurses provide an essential role on hospital units, as they are an adjunct to the existing staffing mix, serving as the quarterback for the unit, coordinating the assignment of patients and the flow of patients on and off the unit, communicating with physicians and other departments, as well as providing an extra pair of hands to assist another nurse with a complex case, or to take on patients in the case of a sudden influx of admissions to the unit. The agreement also locks in the current staffing patterns for the life of the contract and obligates the hospital to recruit and retain staff to maintain these staffing levels. Finally, it includes language obligating the hospital to follow a state law prohibiting the use of mandatory overtime as a staffing tool.
- Wages: Under the agreement, nurses all received wage increases retroactive to April 3 ranging from 7% to 15%. They won across the board pay increases of 3% in year two and 2.5 % in year three, as well as an increase to the percentage between the steps on their 19 – step wage scale. The distance between those steps (each nurse not at the top of the scale advances a step on their hire-date anniversary each year) will increase from the current 4% percent to roughly 4.5% each year at most steps. Over three years, RNs will see wages between 12.5% and 20.5% higher than they would have under their old scales. Nurse Midwives, who were being paid significantly below the market, will see increases as high as 27% in just the first year of the contract.
- Health Insurance: A key sticking point preventing a settlement was NHC’s initial refusal to lock in the nurses’ health and dental insurance premium share for the life of the contract, as well as a commitment to not alter the plan design during that time. The nurses won an immediate cut in their share of monthly premiums, a guarantee that the new lower percentage of the monthly premiums will be locked in for the next three years, while also reducing full time eligibility for the benefit from 35 to 30 hours per week, which will cut the rates for many more RNs. As to the maintenance of benefits over the next three years, the employer agreed that if there is a negative change, RNs would have the right to strike mid-contract.
Northeast Settlement Highlights Issues to Be Addressed for All Nurses in the Commonwealth
The need for better staffing, wages and benefits for nurses in the wake of the pandemic expressed by the nurses at Northeast Health is an issue shared by all nurses in the state who are feeling devalued and disrespected by an industry more focused on profit margins and the bottom line as opposed to worker safety and patient care, according to the annual “State of Nurses in Massachusetts” survey conducted by Boston-based Beacon Research and commissioned by the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
More than 8 in 10 registered nurses in Massachusetts say the quality of patient care in hospitals has gotten significantly worse over the last two years as the COVID-19 pandemic careened into a fragile healthcare system already burdened by profit-driven staffing shortages and high-risk conditions for patients and nurses. 55% of nurses said understaffing is the biggest obstacle to providing quality care. The number of RNs who said they do not feel that they have enough time to provide patients with the care and attention each one needs jumped to a record high of 71%, up from 60% last year.
Almost two-thirds (64%) of nurses said inadequate pay or benefits is a major challenge. This response is up from 48% reporting lack of pay or benefits in 2021 and 27% in 2019 – a 37-point increase in nurses having a concern about pay and benefits over just three years. Over the last two-years, most nurses have seen RN positions being left vacant (84%). In 2019, just 50% of RNs saw positions left vacant.
The failure to address nurses’ concerns over these issues have dire consequences for the system, as more nurses, as they did at Northeast over the past three years, consider leaving, not only their positions, but the profession altogether. Fully 33% of RNs reported planning to leave nursing sooner than originally planned. Among newer nurses with 0 to 5 years of experience, 37% are planning to leave sooner – the highest percentage of any experience group. Another 25% of nurses said they plan to reduce their hours because of their experience with the COVID pandemic and 25% of nurses think they will leave the field of nursing in two years or less.
“I have never seen nurses so demoralized by conditions at the bedside and how difficult it is to provide the kind of care our patients deserve,” said Katie Murphy, a practicing ICU nurse and president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which commissioned the survey. “The coronavirus has made it even harder to be a healthcare professional dedicated to safe patient care, but the pandemic alone did not create these problems.
“For many years, our healthcare system has focused relentlessly on profits, executive pay and expansion at the expense of maintaining local services and making sustainable investments in frontline staff and patient care quality,” Murphy said. “Nurses across Massachusetts, like our members at Northeast Health, are calling on hospital executives to improve staffing, pay and benefits to address the nursing profession’s intense stress and help recruit and retain the nurses necessary to provide safe patient care. For National Nurses Week, what nurses really want are healthcare executives to listen to them, invest in them and support them so they can do the work they love.”
Founded in 1903, the Massachusetts Nurses Association is the largest union of registered nurses in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Its 23,000 members advance the nursing profession by fostering high standards of nursing practice, promoting the economic and general welfare of nurses in the workplace, projecting a positive and realistic view of nursing, and by lobbying the Legislature and regulatory agencies on health care issues affecting nurses and the public.