EMMC, nurses remain at stalemate over staffing

Posted Jan. 31, 2011, at 7:19 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 31, 2011, at 7:36 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Negotiators for Eastern Maine Medical Center and the approximately 850 registered nurses who work there met at 10 a.m. Monday to resume stalled contract talks but adjourned a few hours later without making progress.

According to Greg Howat, EMMC vice president for human resources, the Portland-based federal mediator assigned to the negotiations “shuttled back and forth” between the two sides for two hours trying to determine whether there was any hope of resolving key issues including nurse-to-patient staffing levels and health care coverage.

Shortly after noon, the mediator told everyone to go home, he said.

“The mediator saw no reason for us to continue. She said it would not be productive for us to keep at it at this time,” Howat said late Monday afternoon.

Judy Brown, president of the nursing union at the 400-bed hospital, said nurses are frustrated at the hospital’s unwillingness to negotiate.

“We have moved miles on many of our proposals, but they have barely moved inches,” she said.

The nurses maintain that the hospital’s staffing policies erode patient safety and nurses’ job satisfaction, setting the stage for medication errors and other complications.

They want minimum staffing levels included in their new three-year contract, but hospital administrators say staffing must remain an administrative function that is readily responsive to changes in reimbursement and other elements of the health care delivery system.

Howat said unionized nurses in Maine and across the nation are trying to protect their jobs at a time when hospitals must be free to examine their employee mix.

Brown said nurses are attempting to improve patient care at the hospital.

“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is to make a good place better,” she said. “We are all very frustrated that the hospital doesn’t want to deal with us fairly and resolve these issues. We are professionals doing what we’re supposed to do — advocate for our patients — and we are not being taken seriously by our employer.”

In addition to the staffing stalemate, talks are stalled over the hospital’s determination to discontinue a health coverage plan it says is no longer affordable or realistic. Nurses enrolled in the plan would lose no-cost coverage for themselves and would have to pay more to cover their family members.

EMMC nurses have been working without a contract since September. There is no deadline for a resolution to the negotiations. The next scheduled meeting between the hospital and the nurses is scheduled Feb. 28.

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