Deadline passes but still no word on EMMC, nurses negotiations

Posted April 27, 2011, at 9:06 p.m.
Last modified April 28, 2011, at 12:45 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Half an hour after Wednesday’s midnight deadline for coming to terms or going on strike, there was still no word on the outcome of the latest round of contract talks between administrators at Eastern Maine Medical Center and its nurses union, which represents about 830 registered nurses who work there.

Though the talks went late into the night, it remained unclear early Thursday morning what, if any, progress had been made.

Wednesday’s deadline elapsed without word from representatives from either side of a debate that has sharply divided the hospital community as well as the broader community it serves.

“We’re still here,” hospital spokeswoman Jill MacDonald said shortly after 8 p.m. Wednesday. Though she declined to comment on the chances of a breakthrough, she did note that the two sides had until 11:59 p.m. to come to terms, thereby avoiding a strike next week.

As of 12:30 a.m. Thursday, attempts to reach representatives of the nurses union by cell phone and email were unsuccessful.

The nurses’ threatened one-day strike had been set for May 5, with a previously scheduled contract meeting planned for May 3.

On Tuesday night, however, the two sides announced they would resume talks with a federal mediator on Wednesday in another effort to avoid the planned walkout.

If Wednesday’s talks fail, hospital administrators said, they will bring in replacement nurses for five days, May 5 through 9. That’s a significant upping of the ante from the previous walkout in November of last year, when the hospital contracted with replacement nurses for the one-day strike and additional two-day lockout. About 215 registered nurses from around the country were brought to Bangor to replace EMMC staff nurses during the work stoppage.

Nurses, represented by the Maine State Nurses Association and California-based National Nurses United, have been working without a contract since the end of September of last year. Members of the union’s negotiating team have said the hospital’s adamant refusal to include staffing language and other key issues in the new contract undermines patient safety and erodes job satisfaction.

The hospital criticizes the nurses for pushing a “national agenda” set by out-of-state organizers rather than seeking solutions that reflect local realities and the changing face of health care.

Despite the war of words over staffing levels, the two sides indicated on Tuesday that language regarding the issue has been tentatively endorsed.

Attempts to reach agreement in the most recent discussions, conducted earlier this month, fell flat, ending without any resolutions or agreements.

“We believe we have a responsibility to negotiate a contract that is in the best interest of our patients, employees and the communities we serve … however negotiations concluded around 3 p.m. today with no significant developments,” EMMC community relations representative Tricia Denham said in statement released at that time.

Judy Brown, head of the nurses union at EMMC, said: “We told them we were willing to stay in talks as long as it takes. We were hopeful that we were going to get some agreements on some essential issues, but in the end, what they said is exactly what happened. We were all highly disappointed with the result of today’s talks.”

The MSNA now represents nurses at Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth, Down East Community Hospital in Machias, Calais Regional Hospital, the Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle, Houlton Regional Hospital and Home Health Visiting Nurses of Southern Maine.

BDN writer Meg Haskell contributed to this report.

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