BANGOR, Maine — The stakes are getting higher in the protracted negotiations between Eastern Maine Medical Center and the approximately 830 registered nurses who work there. For the second time in six months, nurse negotiators have issued a 10-day strike notice over what they say is the hospital’s refusal to address their patient safety concerns.
At a press conference Monday afternoon, EMMC administrators responded harshly to the threat of a strike.
Nurse negotiators delivered the strike notice on Easter Sunday. The two sides are scheduled to meet with a federal mediator on Tuesday, May 3. If contentious talks over nurse staffing levels and other matters are not resolved, unionized nurses at the 400-bed hospital say they will observe a one-day strike on Thursday, May 5.
On Monday afternoon, EMMC officials denounced the strike threat, accusing organizers affiliated with the Maine State Nurses Association and National Nurses United with being more concerned with safeguarding jobs than with protecting patient safety.
Vice President for Nursing Services Lorraine Rodgerson called the nurses’ behavior “morally indefensible” and “a disservice to the community.” Rodgerson said EMMC compares “very favorably” to other large hospitals on patient safety issues such as falls and pressure sores.
But nurses say routine understaffing on patient care units sets the stage for medication errors, the spread of infections and other dangers, while also eroding nurses’ job satisfaction.
With support from the Worker Rights Board of Eastern Maine, nurses held a public forum at 6 p.m. Monday at the Bangor Public Library to discuss their patient safety concerns.
About 125 people packed the library’s second-floor lecture room. About 60 of them were nurses or former nurses. At least three patients whose hospital visits reportedly were affected by staffing problems also spoke before the library’s 8 p.m. closing time.
For the most part, the nurses who spoke said they loved their work but that the loss of support staff, a transition to mandatory 12-hour shifts, increased patients loads and time spent doing paperwork on the computer all were taking away from the amount of time they could spent at patients’ bedsides.
On most days, the nurses said, their work demands are so heavy that they can’t take time out for their allotted two 15-minute breaks or their half-hour lunch or dinner break. Some said they’ve had to put in shifts as long as 16 hours and that’s not healthy for them or the patients for whom they are responsible.
Registered Nurse Steven Akerly, a 30-year EMMC employee, said hospital management and nurses used to work together in times of crises, including a nursing shortage in the 1980s. Since then, much has changed.
“Eastern Maine has grown. Our economy has gone in the tank. Our health care system’s a mess. Our patients today are so much sicker. They require more care,” he said. Despite that, he said, staffing is dropping while the workload increases.
Akerly said registered nurses are saying they’re tired, both mentally and physically, and because of that “patients are not getting the care they deserve. The care that they deserve, ladies and gentlemen, that’s what it’s all about. You deserve that.
“It is time for [EMMC] to step forward and be the leaders that they say they are and start talking to us and stop trying to break us,” he said. Safe staffing levels, he said, are a place to start.
Patients Alan Young, Robert Toole and Joe Gallant each spoke of longer waits for help from nurses.
Young, who said he has been hospitalized 51 times since 1981 for chronic illnesses, said in recent years he has had to wait longer than in the past for help with tasks such as walking to the restroom. He said he brought his concerns to the hospital’s patient relations desk.
“I was told it wasn’t because they didn’t have enough staff, that it had to be something else,” he said, drawing chuckles from some in the audience.
Jack McKay of the labor panel, which is part of Food AND Medicine, said the board will compile a report of Monday’s findings within the next several weeks. Those who were unable to attend or who prefer to submit comments in writing may do so by emailing them to email@example.com, McKay said.
EMMC nurses, working without a contract since the end of September, staged a one-day strike in November. The hospital brought in about 200 replacement nurses from around the country, extending the work stoppage by an additional two days. Administrators on Monday were unwilling to discuss the details of their strategy in the current situation, but said the hospital is prepared to weather another nursing strike by again bringing in replacement nurses.
EMMC spokeswoman Jill McDonald said EMMC nurses are taking part in an ambitious national agenda aimed at safeguarding their own job security at a time when the nation’s health care system is in flux. A number of other hospitals across the country are being threatened with nursing strikes next week, she said, making it harder to ensure the availability of replacement nurses in the event of a strike at EMMC.
Nonetheless, she said, the hospital will remain open and is committed to maintaining safe staffing during any work stoppage.
Contract talks are stalled over several issues, including health insurance and the hospital’s ability to transfer nurses from one unit to another, but both sides say the primary sticking point is nurse staffing levels.
In a statement issued Monday morning, nurses said they remain hopeful of avoiding the threatened work stoppage.
“The last thing nurses at EMMC want is to go out on a second strike, but the medical center is leaving us no choice,” said Judy Brown, president of the nursing union at EMMC.
BDN writer Dawn Gagnon contributed to this report.
A previous version of this story contained an incorrect email address for submitting written comments to the Workers Rights Board of Eastern Maine about the conflict between Eastern Maine Medical Center and its nurses union. The correct address is firstname.lastname@example.org.