BANGOR, Maine — Contract negotiations between Eastern Maine Medical Center and the 833 unionized nurses who work there came to an abrupt halt late Monday morning, with less than a week remaining before a planned one-day strike on Monday, Nov. 22.
If the threatened strike takes place, the hospital has said it will lock out all union nurses for an additional two days, citing cost efficiencies related to bringing in temporary replacement nurses.
Barring an eleventh-hour contract agreement or a withdrawal of the strike plan, the three-day work stoppage will commence at 7 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 20, and run through the end of the strike period at 7 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 23. The hospital says patient care will be minimally affected.
Bargaining teams for the two sides met Saturday and reconvened Monday morning at the Sheraton Hotel at the Bangor airport. But according to a member of the nurses’ bargaining team, the federal labor mediator who has been facilitating the negotiations recommended late Monday morning that the parties retreat to their corners until after the planned strike.
“She [the mediator] felt we would be wasting our time,” said registered nurse Jen Kadel, who works on the labor and delivery floor. Nurses at EMMC are organized through the Maine State Nurses Association.
According to Greg Howat, vice president for human services and education at EMMC, the mediator said that since the two sides remain far apart on key issues, neither should contact the other until Nov. 29, a week after the MSNA strike concludes.
“It will take a week to review what we have experienced [during the work stoppage] and what it does to our negotiations, if anything,” Howat said.
Union contract mediators are prohibited from talking directly with reporters during negotiations. Among the contentious issues in the three-year contract are nurse staffing levels, health insurance costs and the practice of moving nurses from one specialty unit to another against their wishes.
Kadel said chronic understaffing leaves patients at risk and leaves nurses frustrated at not having time to deliver the best care they can. Nurses also are pushing to protect their health insurance benefits and to limit the hospital’s ability to change the units where they work.
Although nurses originally had requested an 8 percent wage increase when contract talks began in July, Kadel said they are asking for a wage freeze to help pay for the additional staffing and benefits protection they seek.
“Nurses are saying, ‘We can’t do this every day,’ and we can’t,” she said.
Kadel said nurses are reluctant to strike but prepared to do what’s necessary to protect their jobs and the patients they care for.
Nurses also criticized an agency advertisement that appeared Saturday on the Craigslist website seeking to recruit at least 200 replacement nurses to cover a scheduled hospital strike in Maine. The ad, which did not specifically name EMMC, guaranteed a minimum 36 hours of work at a rate of $46 an hour for most specialties and additional incentives for committing to work during the strike, even if it is called off at the last minute.
“Craigslist is not known for high quality,” Kadel said Monday. “It is a cheap and easy way to find help.”
Kadel said it is disheartening to think the hospital is using an agency that would employ such unprofessional recruitment methods. The posting has since been taken down.
Howat said neither EMMC nor the agency authorized the ad, which was placed by a third-party recruiter. He refused to identify the agency EMMC is using for replacement nurses or how much he expects the three-day lockout will cost the hospital.
“It’s going to cost a lot,” he said. But the long-term implications of some of the nurses’ demands would impose unacceptable demands for years to come, he said.
“The next several years in health care may be very challenging times, maybe even tumultuous,” he said. “We cannot commit EMMC to language that would last well into the future.”
Loraine Rodgerson, the hospital’s vice president for nursing services, noted that EMMC recently underwent an unannounced federal survey that included a detailed examination of staffing levels, with no deficiencies found.
Howat said the MSNA’s Nov. 22 strike date appears to be strategically timed to coincide with other nursing strikes in Michigan and Washington, D.C., by nurses affiliated with National Nurses United. The Maine State Nurses Association is affiliated with that national organization.
Finding replacement nurses the weekend before Thanksgiving will be made more difficult, and more expensive, Howat said, because of the other work stoppages taking place at the same time.