Striking Tenet nurses, hospital CEO trade jabs with no end in sight for standoff

By | March 26, 2021

About 800 nurses at a Tenet hospital are on the third week of a strike that’s shaping up to be one of the longest among healthcare workers in recent years.

At the hospital chain’s St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, nurses represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association have been on strike since March 8 following a breakdown in negotiations over a new contract they’ve been bargaining for since November 2019.

Nurses have been active on the labor organization front in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and share a common issue at stake — staffing levels, and more specifically the nurse to patient ratio.

At St. Vincent, unionized nurses say their staffing has been worsened by the pandemic, affecting their ability to adequately care for patients. They point to hundreds of unsafe staffing reports filed by nurses over the past year, and the departure of more than 100 St. Vincent nurses over the past 10 months.

The hospital rejects those claims, and said only two citations have been issued by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health since 2019, according to a release.

The changes MNA is asking for are “excessive,” St. Vincent Hospital CEO Carolyn Jackson contended in an interview with Healthcare Dive, and the hospital cannot agree to the “aggressive” levels the union is proposing.

The two sides haven’t met again since the strike began, and do not have a timeline to get back to the table.

Right now, St. Vincent operates on staffing guidelines brokered after its nurses waged a 49-day strike over their first union contract in 2000. Under those terms, one nurse in its medical surgical units can be assigned to either four or five patients.

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The terms proposed by MNA stipulate that one nurse in those units would be assigned to four patients at a maximum. MNA is also asking for a five-nurse critical care float pool, and for the hospital to double its emergency department staff from 71 employees to 157, Jackson said.

California is currently the only state with mandated ratios of one nurse to five patients in medical surgical units.

“It has been our request for them to remove some of those unreasonable, or preferably all of those unreasonable staffing requests, and come back to the table and really work on getting a reasonable deal done,” Jackson said.

During the first week of the strike, the hospital paid over $ 5 million to hire replacement nurses, according to a release. When asked directly about how much the hospital has spent so far, Jackson declined to answer.

“It is definitely an added expense to the hospital, and that is challenging,” she said.

The strike in 2000 ended when both parties reached a deal brokered by former Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., that resulted in provisions to limit mandatory overtime and the staffing guidelines currently in place.

But this time it seems “there is no point at which anybody’s going to step in and settle this for the two parties,” Paul Clark, professor and director of Penn State’s school of labor and employment relations said.

The union has garnered support from Massachusetts lawmakers including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. James McGovern and former Rep. Joe Kennedy, who visited the picket line on March 12, along with state Attorney General Maura Healey, who visited Wednesday.

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The Worcester City Council also approved a resolution in support of the striking nurses at St. Vincent on March 16.

But those moves wield little power to break the strike, although the political pressure could hurt the hospital.

“The increased cost is, perhaps, public opinion beginning to coalesce behind the union,” Clark said.

Strikes have costs for both sides, as nurses on the picket line have gone without pay for almost three weeks now.

“Until the cost becomes too great to one or the other sides, they’re going to continue down this road,” Clark said.

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