BANGOR — Unionized nurses at Eastern Maine Medical Center have rejected the hospital’s “last, best and final” contract offer and now are gearing up for a one-day strike to protest what they contend is a serious understaffing problem at EMMC.
The announcement came after two days of voting on Wednesday and Thursday, said Judy Brown, president of the Maine State Nurses Association’s unit at EMMC.
Though the nurses union doesn’t disclose the total number of votes cast as a matter of policy, Brown said, the breakdown was 86 percent against the contract to 14 percent in favor of it.
“We had very high turnout, despite rumors to the contrary,” Brown said, adding that the vote was not representative of “just a few disgruntled nurses.”
No date has been set for the protest strike, Brown said. She said the strike and other union matters will be discussed during a membership meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday. The union is required to provide the hospital 10 days notice if a strike does take place.
The Maine State Nurses Association and its affiliate, the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United, represent approximately 850 registered nurses at EMMC.
The key sticking points in the current round of contract talks were nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, health insurance and protection from layoffs and transfers, union representatives have said.
The nurses allege that the hospital is understaffed and that patient care is compromised as a result.
“It is unfortunate that we are at this point, but we must continue our fight for safe patient care at the medical center and EMMC has not heard our concerns about long waits in the ER, bed closures due to short staffing on the floors, etc.,” Ellen Celli, a registered nurse assigned to the hospital’s Emergency Department, said in a Maine State Nurses Association news release Thursday afternoon.
Hospital officials, however, reject that assertion.
“Contrary to unsubstantiated claims from the union, EMMC has numerous external confirmations of the high quality and safety of the care provided here,” spokeswoman Jill McDonald said Thursday in a statement.
“A nine-member survey team from the Centers from Medicare and Medicaid left the hospital just today, with high praise for the quality and safety of the care we offer,” she said.
“Nurse staffing was closely examined by surveyors on every unit, including staffing plans, actual adherence to staffing plans, and appropriateness of staffing plans to patient census and acuity,” McDonald added. “The surveyors picked random dates to examine staffing that included weekdays and weekends, holidays and high-volume days. [They] also talked with patients and with staff and expressed complete confidence in the safety of EMMC’s staffing in all cases.”
In an interview earlier this week, Maine State Nurses Association President Vanessa Sylvester 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.
On Thursday, McDonald said EMMC “is confident the contract offered to the union promotes patient safety and quality care and is fair in compensation and benefits. We will continue to provide high quality medical care to any resident of our region who comes to us, whether the union is striking or not.
“While our preference is always our own nurses, we will bring in skilled, well-qualified replacement nurses to work with the rest of the care team in the event of a strike,” McDonald added. “Patient care will not be interrupted.”
Details of pay rates and benefits for EMMC nurses in the hospital’s contract offer were not released Thursday.