BANGOR, Maine — Registered nurses at Eastern Maine Medical Center returned to their patients on Tuesday following a two-day lockout on Saturday and Sunday and a one-day strike on Monday.
Though the drama of the three-day work stoppage and a flown-in work force of 215 temporary replacement nurses induced heated rhetoric and accusations of power mongering from both sides, Tuesday’s return to relative normalcy seemed to strike a chord of relief in anticipation of the Thanksgiving holiday.
On Tuesday, Judy Brown, the outspoken president of the nurses’ labor union at EMMC, showed up for her 7 a.m. shift in the operating room and went back home shortly afterward.
“The OR schedule was pretty quiet today,” she said. When her manager asked for volunteers to take the day off, Brown stepped forward. She said she wasn’t surprised; the census at the hospital typically drops significantly around the holidays.
“We’re always downstaffed during holiday weeks,” she said. “Bare minimum staffing is normal.”
Brown said staff nurses returning to work Tuesday morning were kept in the cafeteria while replacement nurses vacated the hospital units. Once the replacements had left, nurses were escorted to their floors, where they took preshift report on their patients from managers.
“It seemed to be a relatively smooth transition,” she said. She had heard no reports of units being left in disarray by the replacement nurses or other disruptions in patient care or nursing routines.
Lorraine Rodgerson, vice president for nursing services, said staff nurses were back at work on their units by shortly after 7 a.m. She made a tour of all the nursing floors later in the morning and found no problems among nurses or patients.
Replacement nurses were asked to use a limited electronic record to keep track of the medicines and treatments they administered, Rodgerson said. Other nursing activities normally recorded electronically were recorded by hand on paper charts, which will be scanned into patients’ electronic records, she said.
Rodgerson said most of the replacement nurses were taken Tuesday morning by private bus to airports in Portland and Manchester, N.H.
Noting that many of the replacement nurses travel routinely to work in unfamiliar settings, Rodgerson said some of those at EMMC over the past few days formed close bonds with each other and with support staff on the units.
The quick camaraderie was especially evident in the high-stakes environment of the neonatal intensive care unit and the emergency department, she said, and many nurses commented that EMMC provided a welcoming and professional work environment.
“They said they have worked in dozens of hospitals and they never had such a good experience,” Rodgerson said. “They said, ‘Please call if this happens again; we’ll be glad to come back.’”
The strike and subsequently announced lockout grew out of failed contract negotiations between the unionized nurses and hospital administrators. The primary obstacle to resolution is nurse staffing levels at the 400-bed hospital.
Nurses say chronic understaffing undermines patient safety and erodes nurses’ job satisfaction. The hospital maintains that staffing is in line with national standards and that patients receive high-quality care.
While nurses claim they remain open to negotiating, the hospital has stated it is simply unwilling to incorporate specific staffing levels into the nurses’ three-year contract.
The hospital has repeatedly refused to disclose the cost of staffing the three-day work stoppage with replacement nurses and other expenses related to the strike and lockout.
Brown said financial documents obtained for negotiation show that EMMC paid the agency $69.50 per nurse per hour worked. The hospital would also have been responsible for transportation, housing, meals, licensing and other expenses, she said.
A recruitment ad posted by the Freedom Healthcare Staffing agency for the EMMC strike offered $46 to $49 per hour with an additional $250 sign-on bonus. Brown said the median hourly wage for nurses at EMMC is about $34, with some specialty areas paying as much as $42.
Negotiations with a federal mediator are scheduled to resume Monday, Nov. 29.