BANGOR, Maine — By early Friday afternoon, 215 registered nurses were either on their way to Bangor or already settling into area hotel rooms, preparing to take the place of staff nurses at Eastern Maine Medical Center, who will be shut out of the hospital for three days beginning Saturday morning.
Stalemated over contract negotiations, about 830 EMMC nurses represented by the Maine State Nurses Association are scheduled to strike on Monday, Nov. 22. The hospital plans to lock the nurses out over the weekend as well, citing efficiencies associated with the cost of bringing in replacement nurses to work during the strike. The three-day work stoppage will begin at 7 a.m. Saturday with staff nurses expected to return to their patients at 7 a.m. Tuesday.
Contract talks, which commenced in July, ground to a halt over several key issues including health insurance and job protection, but the most intractable issue is nurse-to-patient staffing levels. Nurses say the hospital is chronically understaffed and want staffing levels codified in the new three-year contract. The hospital maintains nurse staffing is adequate to ensure patient safety and says staffing decisions must remain in the hands of managers and administrators.
Vanessa Sylvester of the MSNA said Friday that nurses are “shocked and dismayed” at the hospital’s entrenched position and its decision to extend the work stoppage by two days.
“We’re preparing for the next three days, trying to keep everyone strong and together,” she said. The MSNA does not have the resources to provide strike pay, she said, but nurses have the option of using earned vacation and sick days to get paid during the lockout.
At the Maine State Board of Nursing in Augusta on Friday, 32 of the replacement nurses arrived in a chartered bus to get temporary 90-day “letters to practice,” according to assistant executive director Virginia deLorimier.
The nurses at the licensing bureau came from all across the country, deLorimier said, including Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Georgia, Oklahoma and Kentucky. Only nurses licensed in one of the 50 U.S. states were brought in by the temporary staffing agency Freedom Healthcare Staffing, deLorimier said. Staff at the licensing board used a national database to ensure the nurses’ licenses were current and that no nurses against whom professional disciplinary actions had been taken were included in the group.
“We do this just the same as we would for any other nurse,” deLorimier said.
The large majority of the replacement nurses, however, are coming either from within Maine or from one of the 23 other “compact” states that participate in a nursing reciprocity agreement. Those nurses are automatically licensed to practice here, assuming they are in good standing in their home states, and require no additional processing, deLorimier said.
Greg Howat, EMMC’s chief negotiator and vice president for human services, said replacement nurses will be staying in area hotels and transported to the hospital as needed to work their assigned shifts. EMMC officials would not disclose the cost of bringing in the replacement nurses.
The nurses will undergo a training session Friday evening. Hospital spokeswoman Jill McDonald said Friday that the training will include the use of the hospital’s computerized medication administration system, but other record-keeping functions will revert to the older paper-based system because many of the replacement nurses will be unfamiliar with the hospital’s electronic medical record system.
The replacement nurses will work 12-hour shifts, as do almost all staff nurses at EMMC. On Saturday morning, the staff nurses coming off the Friday night shift will report the status of their patients to nursing managers rather than directly to the incoming replacement nurses in order to minimize contact, and potential friction, between the two groups, McDonald said.
The hospital has rescheduled only a small number of minor procedures until after Monday and patients should expect it to be “business as usual” in all departments, McDonald said. But patients and visitors may see an additional security presence, said Vice President for Support Services Helen McKinnon, as EMMC attempts to prevent staff nurses from entering the facility over the three-day period.
Across town at St. Joseph Hospital, spokeswoman Bethany McKnight said the 100-bed facility is prepared for an influx of patients due to the situation at EMMC. Staffing has been increased in the emergency department, on inpatient units and in support areas such as X-ray and pharmacy, she said. Additional on-call staff will be standing by in case they are needed, she said.
Earlier this week, Gov. John Baldacci urged the embattled negotiators to return to the bargaining table “as soon as possible.” On Friday, Commissioner Laura Fortman of the state Department of Labor said the two sides have agreed to accept the presence of a state “observer” when contract talks resume after the work stoppage.
“The governor is very concerned about what’s happening and hopes there will be a quick resolution,” she said, but she emphasized that the state has no authority in the dispute.
At the recommendation of a federal mediator, the next scheduled negotiating session is set for Monday, Nov. 29.