BANGOR, Maine — After months of negotiations, nurses at Eastern Maine Medical Center will vote this week on whether to accept the hospital’s “last, best and final” contract offer.
Stalemated on the contentious issues of nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, health insurance and protection from layoffs and transfers, talks closed last Friday without an agreement. A vote to reject the hospital’s offer will pave the way for picketing, leafleting and, potentially, a nursing strike.
The nurses’ five-member bargaining team will recommend that their co-workers vote against the hospital’s offer, said Vanessa Sylvester, president of the Maine State Nurses Association, which represents approximately 850 registered nurses at the hospital. The vote will take place Wednesday and Thursday.
“The biggest sticking point is staffing,” she said. Nurses want the hospital to agree to a formula that ensures safe minimum staffing, eliminates mandatory overtime and encourages nurses to file formal objections to their assignments without experiencing intimidation from managers and administrators. Understaffing not only risks patient safety she said, but also undermines nurses’ job satisfaction.
“Our answer is kind of simple,” she said. “We want more nurses on the floors.”
Nurses also seek the continuance of a health insurance plan the hospital calls “outdated” as well as language that protects nurses from being laid off or transferred from one hospital unit to another.
If nurses reject the offer, talks may resume if both sides agree to come back to the table. But the nurses’ no vote also will authorize the organizers to call for picketing, leafleting or even a strike if the stalemate continues. Organizers must give 10 days’ notice for a picket or a strike.
Greg Howat, vice president of human resources at EMMC and a member of the hospital’s bargaining team, said Monday that the staffing issue reflects a national agenda being pushed forward by nursing unions across the country. The hospital’s nurse-managers are well-equipped to respond to fluctuations in staffing needs, Howat said.
The MSNA is affiliated with the California Nurses Association and the National Nurse Organizing Committee, he said, groups that have a “radically different view” from that of hospitals on the role nurses should play in determining staffing. In addition, Howat said, the hospital must retain the flexibility to determine staffing given “unforeseeable circumstances” in the changing health care landscape.
Hospital spokeswoman Jill MacDonald said nurses routinely allege increased risk of medical errors and other patient risks because of staffing problems, but that patient care at EMMC continues to be recognized for its quality and safety.
“We’re at the top of the heap,” she said. “Our nurses provide very good care. That’s not the issue.”
Howat said he hopes a strike will be averted by a strong turnout of nurses voting this week to accept the hospital’s final offer. But he said the hospital already has arranged to bring qualified nurses to EMMC to take the place of union nurses if a strike is called. And in a memo circulated to EMMC nurses Monday, the hospital made it clear that a strike would mean all member nurses would be out of work for a minimum of three days.