Talks stalled, EMMC prepares nurse lockout

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Posted Nov. 17, 2010, at 2:46 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 19, 2010, at 6:56 a.m.
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BANGOR, Maine — Unionized nurses at Eastern Maine Medical Center say they want to keep talking about contract language, but hospital officials said Wednesday that it is too late to derail a three-day work stoppage at Maine’s second-largest hospital. From Saturday morning through Tuesday morning, EMMC will be staffed by more than 200 replacement nurses recruited by a national agency and flown here from all around the country.

“We’re at a point where we have many, many nurses ready to board planes to come to Bangor, Maine,” said Greg Howat, vice president for human resources and the chief negotiator on the hospital’s bargaining team. Last Friday, the hospital team gave nurses until midnight Tuesday to withdraw their strike notice and agree to tentative contract language. With that deadline past, the hospital’s big-ticket commitment to bring in replacement nurses for the three-day period must go forward, he said, even if the strike is called off.

Even input from Gov. John Baldacci is unlikely to change the situation.

David Farmer, a spokesman with the governor’s office, confirmed Wednesday that Baldacci recently spoke by telephone with Michelle Hood, the CEO of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, which includes EMMC. The governor also spoke with members of the nurses’ bargaining team Wednesday afternoon.

“I know that the leaders of EMMC and that the nurses who work at the hospital share a common goal, which is to provide the best care possible to their patients,” Baldacci said in a statement. “I urged them all to return to the negotiating table as soon as possible and to continue their good-faith efforts to find agreement.”

But Farmer said that despite the governor’s concerns about the pending work stoppage, Baldacci “respects the relationship between labor and management” and will not step in to stop the one-day strike on Monday or the additional two-day lockout planned by the hospital for Saturday and Sunday.

Nurses and hospital bargainers are stalemated on several issues, including health insurance and job protections, but the pivotal concern is nurse-to-patient staffing levels.

The nurses, citing the need to improve patient safety and nurse job satisfaction, are demanding that the hospital include its current minimum staffing formula in the language of the three-year contract. The hospital refuses, saying staffing decisions must remain an administrative function and responsive to changes in health care regulations, funding, nursing expertise, patient acuity and other factors. The hospital also maintains that current staffing at EMMC is safe and in keeping with national standards and that nurses there rarely express dissatisfaction with their patient load except during contract renewal talks.

EMMC nurses represented by the Maine State Nurses Association rallied their supporters on Wednesday morning in Bangor. Representatives of the Eastern Maine Labor Council, the Maine Education Association, the United Steel Workers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers gathered in The Gazebo, a meeting space at the Bangor Motor Inn on Hogan Road, to speak to reporters in support of the nurses.

Jack McKay of the Eastern Maine Labor Council criticized the nonprofit hospital for advertising heavily during the contract negotiations, for paying CEO Deborah Cary Johnson a salary of more than $700,000 a year, and for what he termed “empire-building” and “bullying” by hospital administrators in recent years.

“The management seems to have forgotten they are legally bound to look out for the public’s interest,” he said. He called the hospital’s decision to lock nurses out over the weekend “outrageous.”

“Is what EMMC is doing best for patients, or is it part of a power play?” he asked.

Emery Deabay of the United Steel Workers said the hospital should work with nurses to improve staffing and patient safety.

“Patients don’t need a stressed-out nurse,” he said.

Retired nurse Kathy Day, a member of MSNA, cited a recent national report from the federal Office of the Inspector General showing that one in seven Medicare patients is harmed by medical errors or acquires an infection while hospitalized.

“These nurses are working to prevent this exact thing from happening,” she said. “It all ties together: Short staffing can cause harm to patients.”

Scott Cuddy, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers who said he was speaking as a private citizen, said EMMC is a community resource.

“As a community member, I want to have safe staffing ratios,” he said. Nurses, he said, are “fighting to take care of us, but the administration is fighting for dollars.”

At EMMC, Howat said long-term spending at the hospital is an economic reality that must drive decision-making. There is pressure from many sides to control the cost of delivering health care, he said, and committing EMMC to unsustainable nurse staffing for the future would be irresponsible. He said the hospital is unwilling to put staffing numbers in the nursing contract and not prepared to compromise on that issue.

Howat said the hospital is following the advice of the federal labor mediator who on Monday recommended that the two sides cease their unproductive negotiations and return to the bargaining table on Nov. 29, a week from the date of the scheduled strike.

“All the actions we have taken are the logical consequences of the strike notice,” Howat said.

Johnson said the impending work stoppage is “unfortunate” for the hospital, the nurses and the larger community.

“This is very serious. It’s not a game, and it’s not a place we would choose to be,” she said. But she agreed with Howat that including specific staffing ratios in the nursing contract is off the table and non-negotiable.

Replacement nurses are expected to arrive in Bangor on Friday and will be housed in area hotels. A training and orientation program is planned for Friday evening at the Bangor Civic Center. Hospital officials have refused to say how much it will cost to bring in the replacement nurses.

Judy Brown, president of the nurses union at EMMC, said hospital nurses likely will picket the hospital on Monday but are prohibited from doing so on Saturday or Sunday. Some nurses will perform volunteer work in the community on those days, she said.

MSNA also represents nurses at Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth, The Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle, Houlton Regional Hospital, Calais Regional Hospital, and Down East Community Hospital in Machias. Recently ratified contracts at Maine Coast Memorial Hospital and TAMC include specified staff-ing levels in both hospitals’ emergency departments as well as the intensive care unit at Maine Coast Memorial Hospital and the Special Care unit at TAMC. Contract negotiations at the other three hospitals are under way.

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