BANGOR, Maine — With contract negotiations scheduled to resume next week, registered nurses at Eastern Maine Medical Center will vote Tuesday on whether to authorize their bargaining team to call another strike.
EMMC nurses staged a one-day strike in November. The Bangor hospital extended the work stoppage an additional two days and brought in about 200 replacement nurses from around the country to care for patients.
The two sides have met several times since then without making progress. Negotiations are scheduled to resume Wednesday, April 13. Unionized nurses represented by the Maine State Nurses Association will vote Tuesday, April 12, on whether to allow a 10-day strike notice to be issued if the talks fail.
While there are several areas of disagreement holding up the talks, the biggest issue is nurse staffing levels at the 400-bed hospital. Nurses, who have been working without a contract since the end of September, say the hospital routinely understaffs patient units, jeopardizing patient safety and undermining nurses’ job satisfaction. The nurses’ negotiating team is demanding that the hospital include a baseline staffing plan in the new three-year contract.
“We hope the hospital realizes how serious we are about the patient safety issue,” Vanessa Sylvester of the Maine State Nurses Association said Thursday. “We are flexible on how [the concerns] get addressed, but they must be addressed.”
For their part, EMMC bargainers have said they are unwilling to codify staffing in the contract. The hospital maintains its nursing assignments are in line with national standards and responsive to changes in patient acuity and nurse experience on any given unit or day. Including staffing policy in the contract could tie the hospital’s hands during a time when the health care delivery system is in profound change, according to the bargaining team.
Chief negotiator Greg Howat said EMMC sent a modified proposal to the nurses Thursday. While he would not be specific as to its content, Howat said the document updates the hospital’s last official proposal, presented at talks on Dec. 8, to reflect compromises reached at unfruitful sessions in recent months.
While nurses will not be voting on the updated proposal Tuesday, Howat said he hoped they would “have it in front of them” when they vote on the strike authorization.
The hospital will continue to bargain in good faith, Howat said, “but we are very comfortable and committed to defending the issues we’re defending, including who is going to decide how to staff the hospital.”
In addition to the staffing issue, contract negotiations have bogged down on health insurance and job protection language for nurses.
Both sides say they hope to reach agreement and avert another nursing strike.