PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Nurses at The Aroostook Medical Center have voted to authorize a strike if a growing dispute over safe staffing at the Academy Street facility is not met by early next month, the president of the local nurses union said Friday.
Lori McPherson said that most of the 150 nurses in the local Maine State Nurses Association Unit 7631 showed up to vote on whether to authorize their bargaining team to take actions that include striking to have their conditions met. Approximately 95 percent of the nurses voting supported the intent to strike, which eventually could lead to a one-day strike, she said.
“This still depends on negotiations,” McPherson said Friday. “We are meeting with a federal mediator on Oct. 5, and maybe the mediator will be able to help us through this. If not, the next step likely would be the strike.”
McPherson said Tuesday that the union has been in negotiations with management since June. The nurses’ contract initially was set to expire in August but was extended until Sept. 22 “as a show of good faith,” she said.
The contract was not extended again after it expired Wednesday.
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.
McPherson said that the nurses want to see the hospital retrain and recruit nurses in order to protect patient care, but management has been unwilling to agree to these safety provisions.
She said that if the nurses do decide to strike, they will give the hospital 10 days’ notice so that elective surgeries scheduled on the day of the strike could be canceled and other patient care arrangements made.
She added that it would be a one-day strike.
“It will be just enough to disrupt management,” she said Friday.
Joy Barresi Saucier, vice president of organizational advancement at TAMC, said Friday that hospital officials are looking forward to the Oct. 5 meeting.
“We hope that a strike doesn’t happen,” she said. “We are doing everything we can to prevent it.”
At the same time, she acknowledged, the hospital is making plans in case a strike does occur.
Barresi Saucier said that even if there is a strike, the care patients receive will not change, nor will services be disrupted. She was not specific about how that would be accomplished, but said that patient safety remains a priority at the facility.“We feel very good about patient safety here,” she said. “We do everything we can to ensure patient safety, and we’ll continue to do so.”
According to McPherson, the nurses have disagreed with hospital administrators in a number of areas during the negotiation process, including issues related to wages and pension plans.
Barresi Saucier said the issue of wages is still on the table, as the nurses union wants a 7 percent increase in compensation for its members. Barresi Saucier said that the median annual salary for registered nurses in the local union was $58,000, plus benefits, in 2009.
“We feel we are compensating the nurses very well and in line with other wages in our region,” she said.
She also pointed out that the hospital does not have a high nursing vacancy rate, which reflects the number of open positions.
Barresi Saucier said that TAMC’s nursing vacancy rate is less than 4 percent.
“In national literature, you will see the nursing vacancy rate is between 4 and 13 percent,” she said, adding that an American Nurses Association report from September has the national vacancy rate at 8.1 percent.
Barresi Saucier said that the hospital would continue to work with the nurses toward an agreement.