The vote to strike follows years of efforts by the nurses, the lowest paid nurses in the region, to convince hospital management to improve conditions that have resulted in unprecedented turnover of staff, with nearly 30 percent of RNs leaving the facility over the last two years
NEWBURYPORT, MA – The registered nurses at Beth Israel Lahey Anna Jaques Hospital (AJH), who are currently in contract talks with hospital management, cast an overwhelming “yes” vote (99 percent) yesterday authorizing their local union leaders to call a three-day strike should hospital executives continue to fail to address longstanding issues that currently affect their ability to deliver the best possible care to patients.
The vote follows years of efforts by the nurses to convince hospital management to address numerous ongoing problems inside the hospital, including the chronic understaffing of nurses; the failure of the hospital to both improve nurse recruitment/retention; and the failure of the hospital to provide RNs with resources essential to the delivery of quality care.
The AJH nurses who are the lowest paid nurses in the region, with salaries that average between 15 – 28 percent below other facilities north of Boston, have witnessed the unprecedented turnover of staff, losing more than 28 percent of their staff between 2021 and 2023, nurses who left to work at facilities with better pay, benefits and staffing conditions.
“We are currently in a staffing crisis at Anna Jaques, and it’s getting worse,” said Margaret Mirecki, a nurse on the hospital’s telemetry unit and co-chair of the nurses’ MNA local bargaining unit at the hospital. “We are trying to provide the highest-quality care possible to the people of this community, at a hospital we love and want to see thrive. But, due to management’s refusal to address this crisis, we are struggling to find and keep experienced nurses while executives have been cutting back or closing services for the community. We need AJH executives to finally listen to us, and then to work with us to find and implement appropriate solutions.”
In September, the nurses entered official negotiations for a new union contract where they hope to attain wage, benefit and staffing improvements that are needed to stop the ongoing exodus of staff from the facility, with the first negotiation between the parties held on Sept. 12 and the second session to be held today.
The strike authorization vote does not mean the nurses will strike immediately. It gives the AJH nurses’ MNA negotiating committee the authorization to call a three-day strike if/when they feel it is necessary after the contract’s expiration date, which is December 31st. Casting a strike vote this early in the process is an unusual step but one the nurses feel is necessary given the gravity of the crisis the facility faces, and the need for management to understand how serious the nurses are for BI Lahey to fix these problems. If and when the committee issues its official notice to strike, the hospital will then have a 10-day notification period required by law before the members go out on strike.
“Every day we delay addressing our concerns, that’s another day our patients see their care and their potential safety compromised, and another day where we see another nurse walk out the door for better pay and better conditions,” explained Eileen Ryan, RN, a nurse on the hospital’s surgical floor and co-chair of the nurses’ local bargaining unit at AJH. “We love our hospital and our community and will do everything possible to restore it to its former highest standards.”
The nurses’ effort to address these issues were first made public back in February, when nurses delivered a petition to management signed by 80 percent of the nurses, which fell on the year anniversary of their delivery of a similar petition in February of 2022. The petition read in part: “We RNs and co-workers are struggling to provide the best care to the people of this community we love, and we are failing” and provided a list of issues that need to be addressed, including the fact that “nurses at Anna Jaques are the lowest paid in the Merrimack Valley and are leaving for surrounding hospitals where conditions like staffing and compensation are much better.”
A month later on March 9th, after management failed to take any meaningful steps to address the nurses’ concerns, the nurses held an informational picket outside the hospital to alert the public of the impact current conditions were having on the care they received with broad participations not just by hospital nurses, but also by community supporters, labor and healthcare advocates, and elected officials. The nurses then urged management to begin negotiations for the new contract in the spring and summer to address the burgeoning crisis. Again, no meaningful effort was made to deal with the issues.
Key Issues of Concern to Nurses:
- Bottom of the market wages: The AJH nurses are the lowest paid nurses in the region, with salaries that average between 15 – 28 percent below all other facilities north of Boston.
- Below market health insurance benefit: the nurses’ health insurance benefit is more expensive than competing hospitals in the region, with nearly half refusing to even take the substandard benefit.
- Failure to ensure safe staffing levels. Nurses are proposing staffing grids for each unit/department to ensure patients receive safe patient care. Also, due to staffing shortages management can’t even post a schedule without a significant number of holes in the schedule, resulting in nurses caring for patients while short staffed and tired from working extra shifts and excessive overtime.
- Below market shift differentials: In addition to having the lowest rates of base pay, the shift differentials for nights, weekends, on call and floating to other units also lag behind all other hospitals in the region, further undermining the hospital’s ability to recruit and retain nurses.
- Below market retirement and vacation benefits. The lack of a competitive pension benefit undermines efforts to motivate long term employment, and the inadequate vacation benefit prohibits nurses from the time they need to recuperate from working under such stressful conditions.
- Loss of vital services for the community as promised by BI Lahey in its agreement to merge with the hospital. AJH shuttered its inpatient pediatric unit two years ago and last year management discontinued AJH’s emergency department’s longstanding designation as a trauma center, further undermining the hospital’s ability to meet the needs of patients when it matters most.
Adding to the nurses’ frustration over the nursing crisis at AJH is the fact that the hospital is part of one of the state’s largest and most profitable hospital networks — Beth Israel Lahey, which was the result of the 2019 merger between Beth Israel Deaconess and Lahey Health. Prior to the merger, one of the key arguments BI and Lahey’s executives made to Massachusetts’ healthcare decision-makers was that they should be allowed to merge because the larger system would provide greater resources to community hospitals.