Aroostook Medical Center nurses threaten strike

Posted Sept. 21, 2010, at 10:54 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:50 a.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Nurses at The Aroostook Medical Center are speaking out against what they say is a growing dispute over safe staffing at the Academy Street facility, and the president of the local nurses union said they are ready to strike over the issue.

Nurses at the facility spoke out about their concerns Tuesday morning during a gathering in front of the hospital.

Lori McPherson, president of the local Maine State Nurses Association Unit 7631 that represents about 150 TAMC nurses, said Tuesday that the union has been in negotiations with management since June. The nurses’ contract was initially set to expire in August, but was extended “as a show of good faith,” she said.

The contract is now set to expire today and the nurses do not intend to extend it again, according to McPherson.

A registered nurse in TAMC’s recovery room, McPherson said that nurses have proposed safe staffing language which they say a recent study from the University of Pennsylvania shows will reduce patient mortality rates, reduce medication errors and ensure nurses more time to spend with patients.

“We are looking to retrain and recruit nurses in order to protect patient care,” she said. “We want to increase staffing for the betterment of patient care, but management has been unwilling to agree to these safety provisions.”

Tom Umphrey, the senior vice president of human resources at TAMC, said Tuesday evening that both sides will be meeting with a federal mediator to discuss the situation on Oct. 5, and he had hoped that the nurses would wait until that meeting before taking public action.

“We have been in negotiations with them and we’ve met with them about eight times,” he said. “They have offered quite a few proposals and we have offered some from our side. There is language that they want included in the contract, and we have to see if we can live with that. But I am confident that we can reach an agreement.”

Umphrey said that patients at TAMC are “very safe” and that he “certainly hopes” the nurses do not opt to strike.

“With the economy the way it is, it wouldn’t be a positive development for anyone,” he said Tuesday. “I certainly hope there is no strike.”

According to McPherson, the nurses have disagreed with hospital administrators in a number of areas during the negotiation process, including over issues related to wages and pension plans. But the patient safety language is one of the bigger issues, she said.

“What we want is adequately staffed nursing units on the floor,” she said. “We have offered language [for the contract] to speak to the minimum nurse-to-patient ratio in departments such as the [emergency room], for example. We want adequate staffing to protect our patients.”

She said that management also has rejected nurses’ proposal to end mandatory overtime, in which nurses are forced to work beyond their 12-hour shift.

She said that on Thursday, the nurses will vote on whether to authorize their bargaining team to take actions including a strike to have their conditions met.

She said she believes the nurses are “ready” to strike.

“Our nurses, based on the working conditions at the facility, are willing to take a strike vote,” McPherson noted. “We have done an unofficial poll, and it appears the nurses are ready to do this [strike.] We don’t want to. We have done everything possible to avert it, but it appears that, unless our conditions are met, they are willing to strike.”

This is not the first time the TAMC nurses have taken public action to raise awareness about their work and contract negotiations. During contract negotiations two years ago, nurses from TAMC donned red T-shirts and carried red balloons on a walk through downtown Presque Isle.

The nurses at that time said their major concerns centered on patient care, nurse practice issues and compensation to address chronic short staffing at the hospital.

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